‘I dunno, Etta, I been real sick.’

She put her hand on my forehead. ‘You don’t feel hot.’

‘But I’m sick.’

With her arm still around me she turned to my face and said, ‘I know sumpin’ happened ‘tween you an’ Raymond out there, honey. I don’t know what it was an’ I don’t wanna know. But I do know that you two is friends an’ that Raymond will be sick if you don’t stand up for him. Outside’a me you the on’y close friend he got.’

I was looking down into her lap. She raised my face with her fingers and said, ‘Easy, you know we care for you. I been worried ever since I heard how you been actin’. No matter what’s wrong, baby, you gonna have to stand up to it.’

‘What if I cain’t stand no more?

‘Then you have to die, Easy. ‘Cause when po’ people like us stop movin’ fo’ward then we die. You know we cain’t hardly afford no vacation.’

It was my first good laugh in weeks.

It must’ve been a strange laugh though, because Etta said, ‘Come here, honey,’ and when she held me the laugh almost turned to tears.

I went through a whole war and I never cried and I never got sick. I saw my best friends die right there next to me with nothing more than a sigh but I felt less then than I felt in Etta’s embrace. I served under Patton where we froze and fought and then marched until we couldn’t march anymore; and when we couldn’t march we fought again; but I never even sniffled out there in those foreign lands. I was never wounded.

I did things far more terrible than Mouse could ever imagine but it never bothered me.

When she told me that I would die if I didn’t stand I knew it was true. I understood that I was alone and there was no one there to help me. Reese was dead, Clifton was dead, but I was alive. There was nothing more I could do; I was just a man.

I got Etta a drink. I sat across from her on the chair and asked her all about the wedding. She told me that it was going to be on Saturday, four days away, and that it was going to be held around the gazebo behind Victory Church. She was near tears herself, she was so happy about it.

I told her to tell Mouse not to worry. I’d be there with a tux and a smile. But I said that I couldn’t come to rehearsal because I was still sick and there was a lot to prepare. We hugged and laughed for the next hour. I felt closer to her as a friend than a lover.

After she left I went down to the Jewish tailor on Claxton to rent a tuxedo. Then I went to the train station to buy my ticket.

Late that night I went to the bathroom down the hall and bathed and shaved and got myself back together.

I slept for twenty hours after that.

When I woke up it was early evening. The sun was just down and people were in the street. Some were sitting out in front of their houses and others were wandering around; going to work or looking for a good time. I broke out some cheese and chocolate and brought a chair to the window. Watching them soothed me. People living their lives. I believed that they all had secrets like mine but they kept on moving.

At about midnight a fight broke out between two men who had been drinking together on a stoop across the street. They’d been throwing dice for an hour before one of them called the other one a liar.

I watched them beat each other. I saw the short one pull out a knife. The fat one grabbed at his chest and staggered down the street, one hand clutching the wall. A woman was screaming and people ran around like ants. I just watched it;

I knew that my day would come and I was in no rush to get there.

Chapter Sixteen

That was longest month of my life. Every minute stands out like an hour; every hour stands out like a day. I met the strangest people and went to places that I could never have imagined. I lost what a religious man would call his soul.

Pariah is gone.

Miss Dixon died a month after Mouse was married and her relatives came down from Chicago to split up the land. They levelled Pariah and moved all of the people out of the area. They charged back rent on the land, so everyone ran away; they didn’t have any money. Momma Jo and Domaque and Ernestine disappeared too. They didn’t come to Mouse’s wedding. I think that he didn’t want stories about Reese’s death to be around when he had so much cash.

On that Saturday every soul that I knew in Houston was at the biggest wedding Victory Church ever had. There must have been two hundred people there. Flattop and lips brought their band to play at the reception. Little Red was there, and Jellyhead, with his greased-back and conked hairdo. All of Mouse’s old girlfriends came; Etta’s admirers were there with them.

It was something else.

Etta and Raymond walked up to the gazebo. The minister stood there waiting. A breeze was blowing and the pastel silk flags that hung from the roof of the gazebo waved like angels calling out the great day. There were children who could barely hold in their excitement. The women were in fine dress; all of them in tears. I wondered if they cried because Mouse was going off the market or because they were so happy or because they knew how hard Etta’s life would be with a man like that. The bachelors were standing around snickering and wondering what being married meant —not in much of a hurry to test it out themselves.

The minister asked his questions and the wind blew harder. I stood there next to Raymond. He was sharp as a tack and so cool that you could almost see the mist rising from him. His eye was certain. Etta was beautiful at his side.

‘I do,’ Mouse said.

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