Monday, November 22, 2010

Excerpt from The Delilah Case

Chapter One
Spring 1968

Little Niqui didn’t stop to catch her breath or fasten her shoe buckles. She knew the cracks and fissures in the sidewalks by heart, avoided them and ran as fast as she could. Past the quickly disappearing smear of faces. Past the arranged tableau of her childhood. The usual folk estivating like reptiles in the heat. Sipping iced teas on their porches. Endlessly fanning themselves with old newspapers. She never saw them.

But they always noticed her.

Especially today. The seven-year-old bolted up her front stairs and tore open the screen door with so much force that it snapped back against the window shutters like a heavy magnet and stayed there, letting in a spume of dust and all of the buzzing flies. Old men, weary women with small children, pre-teens whose parents didn’t own fans, all gaped in astonishment because only once before had the little girl attempted anything so brash and bold.

Where was the fire? And what about Darnell, the block wondered. Why in heaven’s name was she keeping him waiting?

Little Niqui flew into the dining room right before dropping to her knees and crawling under the table. When she found what she was looking for, the girl repeated her steps backward and was out in the street before the cone of dust had a chance to settle safely back to earth. The object of her quest, the new present from Miss Marta, safely swaddled in the crook of her arm.

The six-inch, brand new voodoo doll wore a tuxedo and top hat. Gede’s hands were splayed in gleaming white gloves, and dark sunglasses with one lens missing hung rakishly on his head. A short fat stubby cigar poked out of the twisted mouth, and a carved wooden cane dangled from his right forearm. He looked drunk and lascivious, but this deity, the voodoo lwa, was the one you called when there was a serious illness in the family, and he loved the little children whom he defended against the seen and unseen.

Little Niqui was already halfway to Treasure house to play with Darnell when she realized she’d forgotten her protector. She ran extra hard and extra fast because she knew full well that this mistake would cost her three-and-a-half minutes of play. One-and-a-half minutes back home, a half-minute for the retrieval, and another one-and-a-half minutes back to the place where she first noticed the doll missing.

Little Niqui never wore a watch, never looked at clocks, was terrified of them because everything in her life was scheduled—her mama Nadine, always making sure of that. Instead she used her internal guides to tell time just the way Miss Marta taught her. She taught her that once you understood them, the spirits would always be there for her.

Nadine didn’t approve of that kind of thinking, but what could she do? Miss Marta was her voodoo priestess, too.

Once again the skinny girl with legs like a gazelle was running past the neighborhood, a little less frightened now, and a lot more aware of her surroundings. She smiled and waved to the people talking all at once at her.

“You forget something Little Niqui?”

“Gonna catch your death, running in the heat.”

“Slow down girl, you hear.”

“Careful or you’ll wear your out your shoes.”

Ummmhmm! Brand new patent leather Sunday shoes.”

“Don’t let your mama catch you.”

“I have thirty minutes.”

“Not no more you don’t.”

“Show us whatch ya hidin’ under that arm.”

“Better hurry, Darnell be waiting on you.”

Darnell. Her everything. Her one true friend. She was truly sorry to be late. Three-and-half-minutes late. Darnell would say he didn’t mind. That was how a true friend acted. Not like that crazy Delilah who would have screamed at her for one silly mistake. You never knew about Delilah, because as much she said she could be counted on, the older girl sometimes wouldn’t show up for days, even weeks. And then, you’d have to be afraid of what kind of mood she’d be showing. Once in a great while Delilah could be a peach. That’s when she brought them fun games to play and didn’t even get too cranky when she lost. That’s why she was invited back. But lately Delilah only made Little Niqui feel real bad about herself, even worse than before she showed up.

Her mama never mentioned Delilah, but she made her feelings very clear about Darnell. He wasn’t smart enough or good enough. In her estimation, just another neighborhood runt. But for some unknown reason, Nadine believed if left to his own devices, that boy had the power to unravel all the good plans she had carved out for her daughter’s future. Everyone knew that the prodigious child’s destiny was to grow up and make a great impact on this ‘ole world. Nadine would have to stay cautious. Ummmhmm!

If you had bothered to ask Little Niqui’s opinion she would have told you that her mama was jealous. Maybe Mama knew she loved Darnell as much as her. Maybe Mama knew that Darnell could keep her safe in a way she couldn’t. Maybe Mama knew if she died, Little Niqui would be very sad. But if Darnell died, Little Niqui would die too.

She might die anyway. More than usual, things were rocketing right out of proportion. Clutching Gede to her chest, the girl tried to squeeze out the memories of the day. It ranked among the worst. And it was happening again. She’d begun detesting every single thing she was forced to do.

That morning she woke up like every day, an hour earlier than the other children on the block, and was chauffeured to a private Jesuit school in the upscale suburb of Metarie. The first half of the day was spent in European-style classes for fourth graders—thanks to her mama’s wheedling she had skipped second and third grade altogether. In the morning she studied her primaries: mathematics, English, history, geography, religion. Then after lunch she was passed from nun to nun, for individual tutoring in eclectic areas such as Picasso’s Blue Period, or the discoveries of the Italian Renaissance. At three-o’clock she took a French vocabulary test and passed it with flying colors.

Little Niqui had the reading comprehension of a tenth grader, and the I.Q. of the current reigning Mensa champion. She could sing opera, play three instruments, compose music, recite dozens of complex poems, and on occasion, fix her mama’s sewing machine and the old electric toaster when they went on the fritz.

When she thought things couldn’t get any worse, after her last class Little Niqui was summoned to the principal’s office. He explained that because of her greater than expected academic progress that year, she would be spending the summer undertaking accelerated classes with a group of equally talented, although slightly older children on the French Riviera. The principal beamed, saying it would be for the whole summer. Astonished to see the look of sheer terror cross those big bright eyes, he quickly added that her mama would be going too. And that’s when she burst into tears and ran into the bathroom to throw up her lunch.

They had a deal!

You didn’t break deals, or go back on your word. Even if you were Nadine Doucette. Last winter, after they took Darnell away from her, and with only Delilah to witness it, Little Niqui jumped off her second-story veranda onto the brick courtyard below. And although she hadn’t broken a bone, an examining doctor at LSU who was no shrink, but could recognize a suicide attempt when he saw one, reported the incident to the resident psychiatrist. A group of specialists were brought in, and soon after a conclave convened between the hospital and Dominique’s school, and between Nadine and the Black Panthers.

One of the first things the latter group did after taking over the neighborhood was become Little Niqui’s personal benefactor. Indeed, they supplied the cash for the expensive matriculation, after-school lessons, and of course the car and driver. They bought Little Niqui’s mother a new stove and refrigerator, and when she asked for it, paid for the repairs to her porch and steps, and replaced the shutters on the front windows.

The senior members of New Orleans’s Black Power movement were also Little Niqui’s neighborhood appointed child advocates. They had a big say in what happened next.

So it was settled that she would continue all of her schoolwork and activities. She would keep curfew and go to church and bible study on Sundays. The tiny precocious child also promised no more shenanigans like jumping off porches, or cutting—the ER doctor had also found a half dozen tiny unhealed slits alongside older scars on the back of her neck, mostly covered by her long pony tail.

In return, much to Nadine’s chagrin, her daughter would be allowed to play with Darnell for thirty minutes each day after supper. No more, no less, and as much as she wanted on weekends, as long as there were no special events planned.

That was the deal.

Until today.

Instinctively, Little Niqui knew this new life plan was different, that she couldn't complain to Barry Beales, the leader of the Panthers, because most likely he was financing the trip. She would just have to find a way to bring along her best friend. Otherwise, how would she ever survive the summer?
Darnell sat on the top step carefully unwrapping a piece of chewing gum. Little Niqui watched him for a moment before taking the piece and popping it into her mouth. She never tired of looking at his face briefly wondering why some of her mama’s friends thought Darnell didn’t quite ‘fit in’. Almost the darkest kid on the block, nine-year-old

Darnell had been born with European features, a short skinny nose, thin lips and steel-blue eyes. His jet black hair fell in waves slightly over his ears, and unlike Little Niqui's, it was natural and not processed. To her he was the cutest creature she’d ever laid eyes on and she prayed he would always belong to her.

“Come on, let’s play.” Darnell clambered up the steps and tore into the house. Little Niqui ran after him chortling, trying to catch up. She followed the narrow hallway until she found him in the kitchen. Darnell heroically ducked and feinted her grabs by running under a square metal table. When she finally tagged him, he fell into an exaggerated heap on the cracked linoleum floor and pretended to be dead. The girl pulled and tore at his sleeve. She laughed so hard she fell down, too. Then like a miniature twister she shot up and screamed: “Catch me if you can!”

The two kids always continued this exchange, in and out of the rooms for fifteen minutes. The house was laid out much like the rest of the shotgun houses on the block: three rooms with an unbroken hallway connecting them. But this one had the camel back edition, where a second bedroom had been built upstairs. The house belonged to Davina and Dave Treasure, who a month ago up and left to take care of their ailing daughter near Vicksburg, leaving the keys with their next-door neighbors, the Jacksons.

Once when Larry Jackson went to check on the house, he found the back door slightly ajar and that’s when he discovered Darnell and Little Niqui jouncing through the front rooms. From that time on he unlocked the back door at five minutes to seven and came back promptly to lock up at seven-thirty-five. If it so happened that his wife made cherry Kool-Aid that day, he filled two glasses and left them on the kitchen table where the kids would find them.

Their final ritual, to run up the stairs and jump up and down on the old feather bed had to be cut short today, but they still managed to get in a game of who-could-jump-farthest-off-the-bed. It was when Little Niqui cleared her friend by almost a foot and rolled to her side, that Gede fell from her pocket and landed on the floor. Darnell swiveled his body and grabbed the doll.

“This new? When did you get it?”

“Yesterday from Miss Marta.”

“But you already got one.”

“This one’s better.” Little Niqui took back the saucy patron of young children, sat up and balanced him on her knees. The children studied the cockeyed face staring at them.

“Why do you need better?”

“You know.” Little Niqui twisted her mouth. “I’m getting scared. All the time now.”

Darnell turned away and looked out the dormer window. The glass was melting. He could feel Delilah's heat all around. “It’ll be okay,” he said knowing it wouldn’t be. “I’m here. Don’t you worry.”

“Look at me Darnell.” Little Niqui’s eyes were wide trying to contain a flood of rushing tears. “Look at me.”

“Don’t cry. I don’t like that crying.”

“I’m sorry. Darnell. Darnell.”

When he looked back at her his smile was warm. Darnell couldn’t bear to see his friend sad. “You have five minutes, then we gotta go.” Darnell did own a watch, his own present from Barry Beales.

“You won’t ever leave me, will you?”

“You know I won’t.” And then looking very serious in the manner of a grown up, he asked, “Have you seen her yet?”

“No, but I know she’s coming.”

Their evenings always ended with Darnell patiently reciting every article of whatever Little Niqui made him promise. He put up with it because it seemed to make her feel better. Secretly he wondered why she bothered at all with the ritual when she already knew the ending to the story.

It most certainly wouldn’t be him leaving her.