Song of the South

Chapter One

              “Was this an accident, or did you do it on purpose?”

              I opened my eyes to see my mother standing at the foot of my hospital bed, her heart-shaped face unreadable as always. The strap of her Louis Vuitton limited edition purse was hooked into the crook of her left arm. Her right hand was fidgeting, meaning she was craving one of the rare cigarettes she allowed herself from time to time. Her dove gray skirt suit, complete with matching jacket over a coral silk blouse, looked more rumpled than usual. Her shoulder length bob, recently touched up as there were no discernible gray roots in her rigid part, was also a bit disheveled. She wasn’t tall, just a few inches over five feet, and always wore low heels, because she preferred being underestimated. Regular yoga and Pilates classes kept her figure slim. She never wore a lot of make-up, just highlights here and there to make her cheekbones seem more prominent or to make her eyes pop. Looking at her, one who didn’t know better would never guess she was one of the top criminal attorneys in the country or that her criminal law classes at the University of Chicago were in high demand.

              I could tell she was unnerved because she’d allowed her Alabama accent to creep slightly back into her speech. She’d worked long and hard to rid herself of that accent when she was in law school, because she said no one took her seriously when she spoke or else thought she was stupid once they’d heard it. The only times she used it now was when she wanted someone to feel superior to her, or she’d been drinking, or she was upset.

              It worked like a charm getting her out of speeding tickets.

              I hadn’t been asleep, nor had I been awake either, hovering in that weird in-between state where it seemed like I’d been living for the last three or four days.

              “It wasn’t on purpose.” I managed to croak the words out. My throat was still raw and sore from having my stomach pumped. My lips were dry and chapped, and my eyes still burned from the aftermath of the insane drug-and-alcohol binge I’d gone on in the aftermath of the break-up with fucking Tradd Chisholm. “It was an accident.” I shifted in the hospital bed, trying to sit up more, the IV swinging wildly. The memory of that last and final fight with Tradd flashed through my head.

              Why are you so fucking needy? He’d screamed at me. I can’t fucking breathe!

              Fucking Tradd, anyway. Why did I let him get under my skin the way I had?

              Why had I let him isolate me from my friends?

              Why, why, why.

              He wasn’t worth this, that’s for sure.

              She moved to the chair beside my bed, her heels clacking on the linoleum floor. She sat down smoothly—she always moved fluidly, which led one of her ex-husbands to spit at her on his way out the door, “Maybe if you take that baseball bat you’ve got shoved up your ass you can be a wife to the next poor bastard who marries you.”

              She peered at me with her big, emotionless gray eyes. “Given your history, you understand why I had to insist they put you on a seventy-two-hour hold, once they called me?”

              I closed my eyes.

              My history.

              I’d slit my wrists at fifteen, tired of the non-stop bullying at St. Sebastian’s, the elite prep school that she said would set me up for the rest of my life. The therapist she sent me to afterwards claimed it was more of a cry for attention than anything else, and I’d had to agree with that assessment. After all, I hadn’t gone up the arm following the vein with the Exacto knife, after all, but had cut across instead—which meant the wounds would clot long before death. I’d taken a couple of her Xanax, thinking it would make the razor slicing my skin hurt less.

              That was why I passed out in the bath water, not from loss of blood.

              My therapist had also made me understand why she couldn’t forget or let it go.

              “Put yourself in her shoes, Jake,” Dr. Mendelssohn said, making sure she was earning her two hundred and fifty dollars per hour. “Imagine coming home from a long day in court, exhausted, and finding your only child unconscious in a bathtub full of bloody water, a razor blade on the bath mat. That’s an image she’s not likely to ever forget. No parent would.”

              “Yes, Mom, I understand.” I replied mechanically, keeping my eyes closed. My throat ached still, and I had a headache. The doctor said it would take a day or so before I started feeling physically better. It had already been twenty-four hours. Forty-eight more to go before I could go home to my cute little apartment on Napoleon Street.

              Not that I wanted to go back there.

               The memories of the fight and Tradd storming out were still too fresh, the place would seem empty without him there. Had we ever been happy together? I wasn’t sure. We must have been at some point. There must be good memories, too— I just couldn’t remember them at the moment.

              “I’m not responsible for your feelings!” he’d screamed at me. “You’re too possessive! You won’t let me breathe! I can’t take it anymore!” And finally, the finishing touch: “You’re just not worth all this drama.”

              The door slammed behind him.

              I’d stood there, shaking, grabbed my phone before remembering there wasn’t anyone for me to call. Tradd hadn’t liked my friends and I’d chosen him over them. Our friends were his friends.

              Without him, I was alone.

              So, I’d gone into my little kitchenette, my hands shaking as I reached for the bottle of Grey Goose in the cabinet over the stove. I poured myself a glass, added some ice and started drinking. I don’t remember heading to the Quarter, whether I took a Lyft or the streetcar or called a cab or how I got there. All that mattered was that I did get there.

              I do remember deciding after a couple of glasses that the easiest way to feel better was a lot of drugs and a lot of sex with strangers. Most of those days between Thursday night and Sunday morning were a blur.

              At some point I must have run into a dealer I knew and started snorting.

              So. Many. Blanks.

              The last thing I remembered was being on the dance floor at Oz, my shirt off and my heart racing and the sweat pouring out of my body, the little packet of crystal meth I’d just scored from someone—the last of I don’t know how many—clutched in my hand as I moved to the endless thump of the music, some total stranger dancing close behind me, grinding on me, dry-humping me on the dance floor. I remember dipping my apartment key into the baggie and inhaling up both nostrils.

              According to the doctor who’d spoken to me when I came to in the emergency room, I’d collapsed on the dance floor around five in the morning on Sunday. The ambulance arrived at Oz around five thirty and brought me to University Medical Center. They’d pumped my stomach, given me something to counteract the meth, stuck an IV in my arm, and called my mother.

              And once she told them about the suicide attempt when I was fifteen, they agreed I should be watched for seventy-two hours.

              And now, here she was.

              “I won’t ask why you didn’t call me.” She said, sounding tired. She probably was—she was consulting on a case in Los Angeles and so she must have taken a red-eye flight in. “I know I’ve not been the best mother, Jake, and maybe it’s my fault you’re so messed up. Maybe I  shouldn’t have been a mother. God knows I can’t make a marriage last. Which reminds me, I’ve kicked Brock out and asked for a divorce—” Brock was only ten years older than me and a tennis instructor. I hadn’t thought it would last, but he was gorgeous and had a great body and was nice enough, if not particularly smart.  I didn’t blame her for marrying someone for great sex after three failed marriages. “—but I’ve done my best, the best I knew how to do.” Her right hand was twitching again. I was tempted to tell her to just go have the damned cigarette. “And I know I’ve not been around much because of my career but…” She shook her head. “Your father says you don’t talk to him either.”

              My parents divorced when I was so young, I couldn’t remember them being married. He’d remarried, lived out in the Chicago suburbs with his second wife and their three kids. Very 50’s family sitcom existence. Cecily, my stepmother, tried to always make me feel welcome and a part of their family, which only made it all the more obvious I was out of place in the suburbs.

              “So, I guess we failed you as parents. Maybe you shut me out because you think I’m not there for you, have never been there for you. But I am your mother and I wish you’d call me when you’re in trouble.” Her voice shook on the last words, the accent softening the r’s and drawing out the vowels in a slight drawl, but she took a moment to compose herself and I watched her turn back into the high-powered, highly sought after criminal defense attorney that rarely lost a case and eager young students wanted to learn from. “I took the liberty of stopping by your apartment on the way here.” She hesitated. “You tore up all the pictures of Tradd and burned in them in the sink. And since he’s not here, I guess it’s safe to assume that’s what this was all about.”

              “I don’t—I don’t want to talk about Tradd.” I closed my eyes. I just felt numb but was afraid if I talked about him, thought about it, the pain would come back.

              “All right.” She leaned forward in the chair. “You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to—I’m not going to make you.” She got up out of the chair and walked over to the window, looking out through the blinds at the traffic on Tulane Avenue. “I’ve already talked to the dean, and they’ve agreed to withdraw you from this semester, even though it’s so late, given the circumstances. I think you need to get out of New Orleans for a while.”

              “Mom—”

              “Don’t argue with me, Jake.” She began tapping her foot. “I’ve also spoken to your landlord and have paid the rent through September, so you can keep the place and come back here to go to school again this fall. But you need to get away from New Orleans for awhile. I don’t think this is the healthiest environment for you to be in while—while you’re this fragile.”

              After the suicide attempt, she’d threatened to put me into a psychiatric facility. We compromised on Dr. Mendelssohn. “I’m not going to a treatment center.”

              “Dr. Benoit said you were inhaling the drugs, so while it’s still possible that you’re addicted, at least you aren’t injecting.”

              Thank heaven for small miracles, right?

              “I’m not addicted to anything, Mom.”

              “I’ll take your word for it.” She hesitated. “But admitting you have a problem is the first step—”

              I cut her off. “What I did was stupid, but it was also out of character.” I sat up further in the bed, wincing as my head throbbed. “I smoke a little weed here and there, and yeah, I get drunk sometimes, and every once in a great while maybe I’ll do something else—” Honesty, but not total honesty, was called for, if it would keep me out of rehab.

              Always tell the truth, just not the whole truth.

              “—but I don’t need to do anything. Even the thought of drinking again makes me nauseous.”

              “That’ll pass.” She was still looking out the window. She turned back to look at me, her arms crossed. “You can’t come home to Chicago because I’m consulting on a case in Los Angeles and will be gone most of the summer. I don’t imagine you want to stay with your father—”

              “No!”

              “—and there really are few other options.” She cracked a smile. “I never thought I would say this, but I know the perfect solution, and it actually solves two problems. You remember when I called you about your grandmother’s stroke?”

              I gaped at her.

              She couldn’t be serious.

              Her mother, who refused to answer to anything but Miss Sarah or Mrs. Donelson, had suffered a massive stroke back during Carnival. She hadn’t been expected to live, but somehow had grimly held onto life in a hospital in Birmingham. Mom had stopped taking me with her on the annual duty trips down to Alabama to visit her mother when I was about eight, so I barely remembered Miss Sarah. Mom always refused to talk about her mother—or any of her childhood out in the rural countryside, really—and her younger brother, Dewey, who lived in Birmingham with his wife and kids, never did, either. He and his family sometimes visited us in Chicago, and he seemed like a good guy, his wife nice. Their kids were a little spoiled—he was an investment banker—but no more so than my half-siblings out in their Mayberry-like suburb.

              “You’re going to send me to Alabama?” I stared at her. “For the summer?”

              “She’s getting out of the hospital,” she replied calmly. “She wants to die at home, and Dewey and I are arranging for nurses to come in—one during the day and one at night, twelve-hour shifts. But those nurses are going to need to take breaks sometimes, and we can’t trust that Donovan kid to spell them.”

              “What Donovan kid?”

              “I’ve told you about Kelly Donovan.” She furrowed her brow.

              I racked my brain. “No, you haven’t.”

              “Of course I did, you just weren’t paying attention.” The like always was implied. She let out an exasperated breath. “His mother was a distant cousin, I’m not sure how we’re related, to be honest, nor do I care, but his mother died last summer and Miss Sarah took him in. He’s some big deal athlete, has a scholarship to play football at Troy this fall. But he isn’t close family, and while I certainly couldn’t stop her from taking him in, I don’t trust him alone in the house with her and the nurses.” She waved a hand. “It’s bad enough he’s had the run of the place since she went into the hospital, but Dewey—” Her face twisted, and she sighed. “He’s been there the whole time, and Dewey thinks we can’t very well kick him out—I really didn’t like him staying there alone in the house while she was in the hospital—because he has nowhere to go, and Dewey certainly can’t move there to stay while we wait for her to…” she stopped herself, and had the decency to blush a little.

              “Wait for her to die?”

              “Well, yes.” She blew out another breath. “I don’t know why it’s always so hard to talk honestly about family things. Yes, while we wait for her to die. The doctors don’t know how much longer she’ll last. She could last for months, weeks, years—or she could die tomorrow. I know I’d feel better if you were there in the house. Not just because of this—” she gestured around the room, and I could feel my own face turning red, “—but to know a family member is there in the house with her. She can’t really get out of bed—you don’t have to worry about any of that personal hygiene things, that’s what we’re paying the nurses for—and she’s able to talk very little. And you won’t have to spend much time with her, except to give the nurses a break to have dinner or a cigarette or to stretch their legs or something.” She sat back down in the chair. “And don’t say you’ll be bored. There’s a satellite dish, so there’s wifi and a big screen television Dewey bought her, and—” Her eyes gleamed. “—and since she’s dying, we might as well get a jump on things that’ll need to be done once she’s gone. You start clearing out the place. No one has ever thrown a damned thing away. The attic…the attic looks like something from one of those awful shows about hoarders. Lord, that place is a mess, filled with old furniture and boxes of things. Maybe some of that garbage is worth something, can be sold or donated somewhere it can do some good.”

              “That sounds like a lot of fun.”

              “At least you haven’t lost what you think is your sense of humor.” She tilted her head and her eyes narrowed. “But if you’d rather spend the summer at a facility—”

              “No, no, of course not.” My heart was sinking. A summer in rural Alabama, awful as it sounded, was still better than a summer being watched in a rehab center and group therapy and all the rest—made all the worse by knowing you don’t belong there in the first place. Sure, I’d done something incredibly stupid but the only person I’d harmed was myself.

              And getting away—even to Alabama—didn’t sound like such a bad idea. Maybe by the time I came back in August I’d be over for Tradd for good.

              The numbness was fading. Thinking about him caused a pang.

              “And of course, I’ll pay you for the work,” she went on. “You’ll have your credit cards, of course, and I’ll up the weekly deposit into your bank account from five hundred to a thousand. Does that sound fair?”

              I nodded.

              “And you can also keep an eye on those archaeologists.”

              “Archaeologists?” I stared at her. “What are you talking about?”

              “You really don’t listen to me when I talk, do you?” She shook her head. “Some archaeologist from the University of Alabama—Dr. Brady, I think—has been after us for years to allow him to excavate the ruins. Miss Sarah of course would have none of it, but after she had the stroke Dewey gave him permission. You probably won’t ever encounter them—they’re using the old road to the ruins, they’ve cleared it all out—but Miss Sarah doesn’t know they’re there and you aren’t going to tell her. Kelly has been warned about telling her—I am not as squeamish as Dewey about throwing him out. If she gets upset or angry—” She cleared her throat. “There’s no need to tell her anything that’s going to finish her off. And she’s just mean enough to live on and cause trouble for both me and Dewey.”

              “But if she’s bedridden—”

              “I know my mother.” Her voice became cold and steely. “She may be bedridden, but there’s all kinds of things—damage—she can still cause trouble as long as she’s still breathing. I think Dewey should have told them to clear out once she decided to come home to die, frankly, but he’s the son and he has the power of attorney and so what I think doesn’t matter.” Her voice was bitter. “I’m just the daughter.

              “What are they looking for at the ruins? The lost boys?”

              Mom may not talk much about her childhood, but she had told me stories about the family history over the years. The Blackwoods had been among the original settlers of Corinth County when Alabama was still a territory and not a state. The legend of the lost boys was one of the stories she’d told me, while also letting me know that it was most likely an apocryphal story, a romantic fairy tale that was actually fairly common throughout the old Confederate states. Before the Civil War, the Blackwood plantation had apparently been one of the largest plantations in that area of the state, and the Blackwoods had also been one of the largest slave-owning families in Alabama. When the war broke out, the patriarch and his two oldest sons had set off to fight in the war in Virginia, leaving his wife and the two younger sons behind. The father had died at Gettysburg, the oldest son at another one of those late-war battles in Virginia that led to the surrender at Appomattox. When the second son returned to the plantation, he found only the ruins of a burned house. The slaves, his mother, and two younger brothers were all gone. “The story was that a Yankee soldier—maybe a deserter—had robbed the place, killed the family, and burned the house down.” She had shrugged. “But that story—you hear it everywhere. It’s not even original. Hell, even Margaret Mitchell used it in Gone with the Wind.

              No trace of the missing Mrs. Blackwood or her two younger sons had ever been found. The surviving son married one of the county girls and lost most of the property; but the family fortune was slowly built back up by one of his sons, who built a huge Victorian house closer to the county road than the old plantation house. But the later descendants weren’t so good with managing the money and so the big house had slowly started falling into ruin and Miss Sarah’s father had been a simple farmer. The woods had grown back up, and the ruins were about a twenty-minute walk from the newer house, hidden from sight by the towering pines.

              One of my few memories of visiting Alabama as a child included a trip back to the ruins of the old house. I can still remember the columns on the porch and the chimneys at either end covered with moss—but not enough to hide where the fire had burned them black.

              Mom had been very careful to always remind me not to take pride in the fact my ancestors owned slaves. “Slavery was disgusting, Jake, and the root of every racial problem we still have in this country was built on that foundation of slavery. We shouldn’t forget the history, but we also shouldn’t take pride in the fact our ancestors owned people they treated like cattle and were traitors. The heritage is hate, never forget that.”

              I never had.

              “I should hope not, since he has an excellent reputation as a scholar.” she said with a look of distaste. “Apparently, he told Dewey the ruins of Blackwood Hall are one of the few antebellum plantation sites in the state that haven’t been excavated, so this Dr. Brady—don’t worry, I did a thorough background check on him once Dewey told me about all of this—is more interested in finding how they lived and documenting the history than in any of the romantic family legends.” A faint smile crossed her lips, and she arched one of her perfectly sculpted eyebrows. “Believe it or not, the Blackwoods of Corinth County haven’t exactly been the subject of a lot of historical research. But Corinth County is just a backwater and I seriously doubt he’ll find anything of major significance there.” She reached out and covered my hand with hers. “Is there anything you need that I haven’t already taken care of?”

              I closed my eyes. “No, Mom, as always—you’ve thought of everything.”

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