He Cannonballed

Like his father, Roger LeFlore was a judge, but he didn’t have his father’s downtown ease or that scent of leather and cigars. Men didn’t smell that way anymore, nor did women walk as his mother used to, with halting steps in high heels—Piano legs, she’d say, oddly pleased, examining herself in the pier glass. Mary and Randolph LeFlore had ruled Memphis’s social life from the late 1950s until 1981, when Roger graduated from law school. That summer, a man convicted of armed robbery in Randolph LeFlore’s court was released from prison. The man hunted the judge down and shot him dead in the street.

And suddenly Roger was sixty-five, older than his father was when he died, and it was summer, and cicadas were hatching out to mate and sing and die. Among Roger’s junior staff, half a dozen June weddings took place. For himself, he supposed romance was over. Once, there were men and women for whom he’d put champagne on ice. In his forties, he’d found deep comfort with Andrew, a city administrator. Their house was written up in a design magazine; they’d posed with their rescue dogs, Roger’s law books as a backdrop. Yet Roger had the sense that the article would bring bad luck, and it did. The horrible hitting began. Before, Andrew was never violent, though his temper would flare. Now, some creature leapt upon him and took over. He bloodied Roger’s face and broke his laptop. When a diagnosis was made, they felt both relieved and fearful. Andrew was skeptical of doctors and tests: What do they know? There was a year of hope and six months of inevitability, and after Andrew died, his grown children wanted the house. Roger sold them his half, they kept the dogs, and he moved into an apartment, and that was the state of things until two years ago, when his mother began a graceful decline. To look after her, Roger moved back to his childhood home in Central Gardens.

She was ninety-four and usually resting, she who had danced at Carnival balls and popped in at his father’s office whenever he hired a new secretary—oh, their arguments; Roger, their one child, listened dejectedly from the top of the stairs. Now, as aides toted his mother’s trays, their feet scraped the spot where he had sat. Her room smelled of the whispery dry-cleaning bags that covered her evening gowns. She kept the closet open so she could see the bright silks and beaded taffetas. Above her bed hung a framed greeting card Roger had given her when he was little: baby chicks chorusing, Happy Easter, for Peep’s Sake.

They could not do without the aides, yet some of them, he was almost certain, had appeared in his courtroom. His mother’s favorite, a woman named Rae, had the look of a thief. The agency claimed to do background checks. He could do his own, of course, but he didn’t want to be too suspicious. Paranoia cut you off from the human race. People often came up to him outside the courthouse on behalf of a friend or relative; he generally chatted a little, saying what he could. If they became belligerent, he walked away.

“. . . stardust. Soon you’ll be stardust,” Rae was saying as he passed his mother’s room. Alarmed, he went in and stood beside the bed. His mother’s cheeks were wet.

“What is it?” he said, taking her hand beneath Rae’s glare.

“I was telling her about Bonnie,” his mother said. Bonnie was a long-ago friend who had suffered the indignity of a glass of wine thrown in her face by a sister-in-law. “How Bonnie never got over it.”

He turned to Rae. “But if I heard correctly, you were talking about death. You said, ‘Soon you’ll be stardust.’”

Rae tucked her chin and didn’t answer. Buck teeth, chalky face. Why did his mother like her? Play with somebody else, his mother used to command when he had a friend she disapproved of. He’d hated that, but now he knew how she’d felt.

“Please don’t say that again, Rae,” he said. “Give us a moment.”

Grumbling, Rae stepped out of the room.

“I think it was the contempt that killed Bonnie,” his mother said. “Her own relative treating her that way, in front of people. I think it started the cancer.”

“But Rae said . . .”

“First, she said Bonnie was stardust, and then, I guess, she said too much. But she was trying to make me feel better.” She hesitated, then chuckled. “There went something,” gesturing to the wall. These sightings, which she described as passing shadows, seemed to be harmless, and her doctor dismissed them.

A sixth sense made him glance out the open window. Down in the driveway, a sandy-haired sack of a man was leaning against a car, smoking. Rae appeared, kissed him, and dashed back into the house. Roger’s irritation surged. He had instructed the aides to tell their rides not to park in the driveway. As if feeling seen the man raised his head and blew smoke directly at the window. Roger closed the window on the man’s rude laughter.

“All it takes is a phone call, Mom,” he said. He’d fired another aide for being slow to respond to her requests, but he didn’t want to alienate the hard-eyed manager at the home care agency with her pressboard desk and her snake plant. “I don’t trust Rae.”

“There’s worse things than stardust.” His mother reached up and patted his hand. She might have been forty and just lying down for a nap. “Let not thy heart be troubled.”


He was a sickly child, suffering from tonsillitis and croup, emitting a high-pitched cough like a seagull’s cry. The weird cough might have been fun if not for the gravel in his chest, the screaming pain in his ears, the fever and bloody phlegm. When he was eight, his tonsils were taken out. He woke up from the anesthesia, and there was his mother at his hospital bed.

“For peep’s sake,” he said.

She gave her full-throated cackle and spooned ice cream into his mouth.

Why remember what he remembers? All his life he has pictured two wealthy women at a party, as witnessed by his mother: her old friend Bonnie and the sister-in-law who dashed a glass of wine into Bonnie’s face, and she never got over it. Throughout his boyhood, he heard tales of a Confederate ancestor who was shot and killed while getting his jacket on, his first battle, just a youngster, and he couldn’t get dressed in time, an ancient aunt muttered, stirring her coffee in dark-red shadows, perhaps at a funeral. Who was she, and whatever became of her, he wondered as he presided over a case. A shackled defendant gnawing his lip evoked the boy-soldier fumbling his sleeve and the stooped kinswoman sipping funeral coffee: They saved his little jacket. I used to open the trunk, and there it was, all stiff with blood.

I remember everything, Roger had said to Andrew in the midst of their togetherness, when they were decorating the tree, when? Twenty Christmases ago, and Andrew lifted a handful of red stars and glittery reindeer. Okay, so who gave us these?, and it became a game, because who could ever remember who’d given you an ornament?

In the morning, Roger called the agency and said Rae was not to come back.

“But I liked her,” his mother said. “You knew that.”

Rae’s replacement was named Toni. Little bird arms, didn’t look strong enough to pick his mother up if she fell.


When he got home that evening, his mother was happy; she’d had a nice letter from a niece in Virginia. Discreetly, Toni stepped out of the room when Roger came in.

“Oh, if only we could go back there,” his mother said.

“I loved it,” he said. There meant Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, and specifically his mother’s parents’ farm, where he and his mother spent summers when he was a child. There was an old house, a barn, a smokehouse smelling of salt. All too soon, when he was in his teens, his grandparents died, and the farm was sold.

“Canterbury, Canterbury,” his mother said.

He smiled. He had forgotten their joke: Canterbury, Canterbury was a wrens’ call, one of the bubbling birdsongs they’d heard at the farm. He and his mother had developed the habit of saying it whenever they met in a doorway or a hall, chanting back and forth:


Glorious summers, those were; Roger and his mother wouldn’t go back to Tennessee until Labor Day. There were twice-weekly phone calls from his father in Memphis, but otherwise Roger and his mother were free, reveling, feigning shock when they met, then launching into their anthem: Canterbury, Canterbury, Canterbury, can’t, their affection deepening, boundless. She’d had him late in life, she confided. For the longest time, I was afraid I’d be childless. They shared hot, giddy, berry-picking days, and after supper, his grandfather drove them to town in his old truck, for ice cream. Nights were cold enough for blankets, even on the Fourth of July. His grandmother showed him deer trails, fox scat, a brook where minnows flashed like jewelry. Cows rested knee-deep in a shallow pond, swishing their tails, grass falling out of their mouths. He loved the storms: skies like hot metal, thunder rolling over the mountains, lightning spiking the clouds, the dark edge of rain racing toward him faster than he could run for the house.

“Good memories,” he said. “I wish we’d kept that place.”

“Your father didn’t want the burden of it.” His mother sat up straighter in her bed. “I thought about it, though. It would have been an escape, during that time,” one of her rare references to his father’s worst affair.

“It’s not like you to run.”

“And I didn’t,” she said.

“Canterbury, Canterbury . . .”

“Canterbury, can’t.”

Toni came back and adjusted his mother’s heating pad. She couldn’t get it the way his mother wanted. Roger checked his watch: dusk, the blue hour, as his mother liked to call it. He was to meet friends for drinks and dinner, Mark and Joan Monroe.

“Go on, and tell them hi for me,” his mother said, exasperated, snatching the heating pad clicker out of Toni’s hands, and he wondered if he had made a mistake in firing Rae.


“You could retire,” Joan said, tilting her glass to her lips. “Spend more time with pals.” She winked.

You’re still working,” Roger said, but of course, Mark and Joan were several years younger. Mark was a real estate developer, one of the biggest in the mid-South, Joan a PR consultant with billion-dollar accounts.

“You look stressed out,” Mark said.

“Now, now,” Joan chided. Her smile outshone the diamond studs in her ears. “Let’s toast the bridge. We took it for granted for so long.” A crack had been discovered in the Hernando de Soto Bridge, the famous M that arched over the Mississippi River. The vital span supported I-40. Amid an uproar—how had inspectors missed the crack?—traffic was rerouted to an older bridge, the Memphis & Arkansas. Engineers said full repair of the M could take months.

They raised their glasses. During the pandemic, Joan and Mark had emerged as Roger’s best friends. Mark was big and brooding, remote, his powerful shoulders showing a hint of slump. Joan was sexy, wearing her sturdy breasts like badges. A new, deepening strain in her face somehow made her more beautiful. For a time, before Andrew, Roger had been infatuated with her. She had avoided him, and he recovered, as if from illness.

His first love, when he was seventeen, was a boy who was fascinated by strobe lights. The boy’s mother was dead, his father had kicked him out, and he lived above a downtown bar. He and Roger lay on a mattress under the eaves, the tavern ruckus rising through the floor and the flashes of a strobe lamp flailing their faces. It’s like my life, man, the boy said rapturously, light, dark, light, dark. Large pores on his face, so ugly he was beautiful. He wore threadbare shirts with flowers embroidered over grease spots, his mother’s handiwork before she died. If that wasn’t poverty, what was? He loved candy. Roger brought Raisinets, M&M’s, chocolate stars. Oh, man, the boy said, laughing, I’d do anything for chocolate stars. One day Roger went up the funny little back staircase and found only a sparrow fluttering in the eaves. The boy and his few possessions were gone. Roger opened the quarter-window, and the sparrow flew out. He never saw the boy again.

“Don’t work so much at night,” Joan was saying, “you’re at the courthouse, and right next door is the jail, and across the street are the bail bond offices, with crooks hanging around. It’s dangerous.”

“We’re all in the same business,” Roger said.

Mark laughed, a movie star’s deep magnetic chortle. People glanced over and sat up straighter, as if they felt lucky.

“The guy who killed your father, Roger,” Joan said softly. “He got out of prison and came after him. I worry it could happen to you.” She flagged down their server and ordered another round.

“Joan,” Mark said.

“It’s all right,” Roger said, surprised she would bring it up.

The fresh drinks arrived. Joan seized hers and quaffed it like water.

“I’m still waiting for my David and Goliath moment,” Roger said.

“Your dad was lucky with that one,” Mark said.

“It wasn’t just luck,” Joan said loyally; almost he felt the old slip in his heart.


David and Goliath referred to his father’s inspired defense, early in his career, of a man who had killed a powerful antagonist. The case was written up in law books, and the story of Randolph LeFlore’s victory was retold throughout Roger’s childhood. Ultimately, the heroic tale led to circumstances that almost destroyed his parents’ marriage.

When Roger was twelve, a couple named Floyd and Kiki January started attending the LeFlores’ church. The Januarys were younger than Roger’s parents and socially uncalibrated, having arisen from unknown origins. Roger’s mother warmed to them, reporting to Roger and his father: Floyd told the Sunday school class that if he’s mad at somebody, all he has to do is look at their shoes, and he could just about cry. Isn’t that funny? And his wife has the cutest name. Kiki!

At the LeFlores’ annual Christmas party, Roger, small for his age and in his dress-up clothes, obediently welcomed the visitors and then sought his top-of-the-stairs crow’s-nest with a view of the living room, where a fire burned in the hearth, a Douglas fir glowed with blue lights, and guests in beautiful clothes plucked drinks and savories from caterers’ trays. Wearing a red vest, like a huntsman, Roger’s father shook hands, slapped backs, and kissed blushing cheeks. Roger’s gaze kept returning to Floyd January, a tall man with something of the 1880s about him, like a character in the westerns Roger liked. Now and then, Roger focused on Kiki January, a Cleopatra with her black hair and made-up eyes; her blue silk trousers were causing a sensation. One of his father’s admirers was telling the David and Goliath story. The name of Randolph LeFlore’s long-ago client, the “David,” was forgotten, irrelevant: the red-vested party host was the hero. Floyd January stood listening with his arm propped against the mantel, his broad face a little weary, reminding Roger of the man in the moon. Bravo, Judge, Floyd said in his deep voice. And Roger, his legs dangling through the balustrades, was flooded with emotion, enthralled. What did it mean, this feeling? Floyd January was a man, and old enough to be his father, yet a strange ancient fire leaped in Roger’s heart. Across the room, Kiki January, a blazing jewel, lifted her champagne flute and addressed his father. Here’s to you, Ranny.

Only Roger’s mother and his father’s best friends called him Ranny. Roger caught his mother’s eye, their gaze meeting on a high invisible diagonal line that ran from his perch to the crewelwork armchair where she abruptly stopped twirling the wineglass in her fingers. Ranny! they telegraphed to each other, their secret line humming with alarm. Ranny indeed, her eyes said, as the presumptuousness of it sank in. Should it be overlooked? No. The blue-silken Kiki, moments ago a harmless gamine, had detonated.

His father’s profile inclined toward Kiki, and a hungry look passed between them. Roger gaped, their desire was so apparent. Surely this fiery moment was the high tide of his father’s life, but the party had become horrific for Roger’s mother, whose gaze whipped back and forth between her husband and Kiki. Judge and jewel had discovered each other. Over the heads of the perfumed, whiskey-sipping throng, Roger’s mother, white-faced beneath her rouge, beseeched Roger with her eyes. Help me. He understood. He must disrupt this thing that was happening, but how? Stop them, she meant, hurry up and think of something. Anything! All he could think of was to jump. He climbed over the banister, but his foot caught. Helplessly, he dangled upside down, the blood in his head creating so much pressure, he thought his face would burst. Then he fell. His shoulder struck a Chippendale chest, and he crashed in a heap on the floor. The grownups gasped and whirled. They streamed into the hall and surrounded him. And Floyd January lifted him up in mighty arms, Floyd who, impossibly, had reached him first. Hold on, Floyd said, I got you. There was the shock of Floyd’s wintergreen breath, and a glorious armpit stink from his starched white sleeves, and the strength of him as he torqued, hefting Roger as if he weighed no more than a sack of apples. Beyond the press of the crowd, only Roger’s father and Kiki remained in the living room, with its twinkling tree and scrim of smoke. Slowly and smoothly, like the halves of an automatic door, judge and jewel were closing the space between them, gliding irresistibly from either end of the long white mantel, reflected in the brilliant mirror above it. They would meet at the spot where Floyd had propped his arm. Out in the hallway, where Roger was the star, Say something, Roger, his mother begged, tugging his leg. The wind’s knocked out of him, Floyd said. High on his protector’s shoulder, Roger hoped his mother knew he had tried. All that mattered now was that Floyd was holding him. Together, he and Floyd would bust into a saloon, the swinging doors flapping behind them; they would take on thieves and rustlers and ride away on Appaloosas. Roger’s lips touched Floyd’s ear. I love you, he whispered. He felt splendidly addled. His mother stared. She swiveled toward the living room, where his father and Kiki were standing as close as people could without embracing. Her stunned, bewildered gaze swerved back to Roger. He buried his face in Floyd’s neck, he felt Floyd’s heart beating—


“Well, you don’t have to be rude about it,” Mark was saying to the server, a young woman with bristly indigo hair and darting black eyes. Colleen, she’d said her name was when she greeted them. Mark was dabbing at his sleeve. Some contretemps had occurred. Deep in recollection, Roger had missed it; Joan was studiously reading a menu.

“Bastard,” Colleen hissed. She turned her back and became volubly attentive to new customers at the next table.

Joan cut her eyes at Colleen, who was succeeding wonderfully, fulsomely.

“How about complimentary appetizers?” Colleen was saying. She taught the new people her name. Colleen was bandied back and forth. How about a cheese sampler Yes, yes, Colleen! House-made sausage, would they like that?

“Colleen, you’re an angel!” Party of five: three men, two women, with cruel faces and rock-star hair, except for a bald man in sunglasses who resembled a giant squid. Their gaze sliced Mark and Roger and Joan to ribbons. Colleen switched away.

“She was the one who spilled the drink,” Joan murmured. “Then ingratiates herself with them, to say, ‘It’s not me, it’s you.’ I am so sick of people weaponizing goodwill.”

“It’s a tactic,” Roger agreed.

“I’ve done it,” Joan said, “but it’s horrible. We need to come up with a name for it.”

“We’ll work on that,” Mark said in a tone that meant he wouldn’t.

“Shall we go?” Roger rose from his seat, but Mark and Joan waved him down.

“How is your mother?” Joan said. “Did I ever tell you, my parents got engaged at one of their parties?”

“She’s fine. Just, you know, getting older.”

“I’ll stop by and visit her.”

“She’d like that.”

“Just before my mother died,” Joan said, “she was holding her Bible, and she said, ‘There are things I wonder about.’ Did I tell you about this?”

“Joan,” said Mark tiredly. His face still looked blighted from the Colleen incident.

Joan ignored him. “And she said, ‘Why did God make man? Why didn’t He stop with the perfect world of animals and nature? And what does it mean that He created us in His image? Does He look like us? Is He bad?’”

“Good questions,” Roger said.

“‘Is He bad?’ was the last thing she said.”

Colleen swooped over to the next table with a laden platter and lingered for a rousing, effusive chat. Roger overheard a damsel-in-distress note in her voice and sympathetic trills from her audience. The giant squid wrenched off his sunglasses and tossed Roger a scalding stare.

Joan’s eyes had clouded when she spoke of her mother, but now they were clearing. How many years since Roger had danced with her at The Peabody and they’d
driven an open convertible through midnight streets, singing? Roger quit all that long before he was named a judge. Your eyes are April rain, he’d told her. Gently, wisely, she’d acted like he was kidding.

“Don’t you ever want to do one last crazy thing?” she said.

“Why last?” he said. “And how crazy?”

“At our age, anything could be the last. Think of something.”


“Use your imagination.”

He cast about. “The break in the M . . .”

“Oh, yeah! Let’s go see. Double dare you.”

“It’s closed,” Mark said, and Roger recalled that they had briefly separated after their youngest child was in college, then quietly reunited. They had two sons, a daughter, and several grandchildren, all lacking Joan and Mark’s magic. “With guards to keep people away.”

“We know, killjoy,” Joan said.

A different server, unsmiling, shoulders hunched, slid their check onto the table and vanished.

“We’d planned to eat dinner,” Mark said.

“Let’s go somewhere else,” Roger said.

“I agree,” Joan said. “The food here is silly. Last time, they served salad dressing in a champagne glass, and we thought it was soup and drank it.”

Roger counted out some cash.

“Not yet.” Mark signaled for another round.

“To the bridge,” Joan said when the drinks came. They toasted.

But it wasn’t the M bridge Roger was thinking of, but the Memphis & Arkansas, the one people used when he was a child.


One summer day when he was ten or eleven, before the Januarys entered his family’s life, he’d been out in the Virginia cornfield, trying to keep the barn cats away from a bunch of mice they had found. While the cats crouched and circled, the terrified mice overran the clump of straw that was their nest. He shouted, waving a cornstalk. His mother came looking for him. Your father called, she said. Your grandmother LeFlore had a stroke. He looked up, thinking she meant a stroke of luck. She has died. We have to go back to Memphis. His mother loomed over him, her shadow puddled at her feet. The cats pounced, routed the nest, and trotted away with tails dangling from their jaws. He felt sick. He liked Grandmother LeFlore, no matter that she was fussy and brittle. Once, his mother had pointed to a dire wolf in his Ice Age book and with an impish look whispered, Grandmother LeFlore, and he wanted to take up for the old lady but didn’t dare; his mother would have considered it betrayal. Will we come back? he asked, knowing the answer; the leaves on the walnut trees were already turning yellow. No, this is it for the summer, his mother said. We’ll fly to Memphis tomorrow. I’ll call and get tickets. You will need new clothes. Grown-up things she was saying, yet he saw the essential childishness that must have maddened his father. Out of her face leaped a rabbity look that he sensed would dominate her appearance as she aged. She gazed across the field, past the dip in the land that his grandfather called a draw. Did I ever tell you, she said, she wanted to name you Deems, after some uncle? Your father was willing to go along with it. I had to fight them both.

Deems. He tried the name on. Deems sounded mean, like he would hurt mice and cats, but Deems would have known what a stroke was.


December 1968. Roger was thirteen. A year had passed since the Christmas party. Soon it would be a new year. His mother did everything she could to avoid saying the word January. At suppertime one night, the phone rang. Pearl, the housekeeper, answered it and returned to the dining room. Mr. LeFlore, the police chief is asking for you. Roger’s father scraped back his chair and left the room. Roger and his mother waited silently. It had happened before. There are things your father needs to know before other people do, crimes and such, his mother had explained. Once, the police uncovered a threat on his father’s life and surrounded the house for a night. The chief’s calls were never good news, although the officers ringing the house was exciting. This time, because things were already tense, Roger felt unbearably anxious. He and his mother took dry-mouthed bites of their steak and potatoes.

Mary, his father said when he came back, strangely formal and distant. Ashen-faced, he did not sit down. Pearl hovered in the kitchen doorway.

What’s going on? Roger’s mother said. What did he want?

Something very sad has happened.

Well, what, Ranny? Roger’s mother said. Tell me.

Floyd January . . .

Roger went numb.

. . . has passed away, his father said.

From scalp to sole, Roger turned to ice.

How? his mother said. Was there an accident?

His father was silent.

Ranny, talk to me. His mother’s face was hardening. Did she shoot him?

He jumped off the bridge.

His mother left the room, and his father followed. From their bedroom came sobs and shouts.

In the weeks that followed, Roger started fighting. Friends, enemies, classmates, Sunday school kids. His fists connected with noses, shoulders, and mouths, even that of his best and practically only friend, Teddy. Roger messed up a year’s worth of Teddy’s orthodontia. His father paid a large sum to Teddy’s parents, but there was new, silky pride in his father’s voice that Roger found discomfiting. Roger went to Teddy’s house with a cake his mother had baked. Teddy’s mother summoned Teddy, who came to the door with his puffy purple jaw and tender lips that still showed cut-marks, listened to Roger’s apology, and said, Okay, but I have all new friends now.

With one particular bridge on his mind, Roger, a pariah, had sought refuge in the study of all three of Memphis’s big spans. Majestically, they carried railroads and highways across the Mississippi River, between the Eastern and Western halves of the United States. The Hernando de Soto, the future M, was under construction. From almanacs and encyclopedias, Roger learned about the Frisco, the world’s third-longest bridge when it opened in the horse and buggy days of 1892, and the Harahan, from 1916. Both were soon overwhelmed by thousands of automobiles. The bigger, broader Memphis & Arkansas was the solution. Completed in 1949, it had four lanes and sidewalks. This was Floyd’s bridge. Roger had learned the location of his jump from the Commercial Appeal. He did not believe Floyd did it because of his father and Kiki. Floyd jumped because Roger had said, I love you.

One day, he skipped school, took a bus downtown, and made his way to the entrance of the Memphis & Arkansas. Motorists didn’t seem to notice as he crept along the edge. The deck bounced beneath his feet, shaking him along like a bean in a hopper. Steel trusses towered above, and the iron-gray river swirled below. The older bridges loomed to his right, startlingly close. A train rattled over the Frisco, its hot wind nearly knocking him over, and when it passed, the Harahan emerged just beyond, a webby maze; he smelled the old iron. Trucks roared past him, and the bridge bucked and jangled, the traffic deafening. Ka-lump, ka-lump. This was what Floyd had heard and felt, Floyd who in Roger’s mind still wore an immaculate white shirt. He cannonballed, a witness said; Roger had found a copy of the police report on his father’s desk. I’m here, Roger told Floyd. He didn’t plan to jump, but he hadn’t ruled it out. The wind twisted his jacket. He smelled diesel, metal, rubber. He found himself outside the supports and above the open water. Feel that wind, said a voice in his head, Floyd’s voice, marveling. Far below, a barge crawled. The dots on its deck were people. Roger’s jacket ripped off and sailed away. His eyes streamed. The river was immense, oceanic. Over where the city was, skyscrapers were shrunken to miniatures, and houses like baby teeth clung to the bluffs. To the west lay the forests and flat brown plains of Arkansas and a ridge he recognized as the levee. Rice fields, bobolinks, and red-winged blackbirds, his father would say when the family headed to Hot Springs for horse races, a suite at The Arlington, balcony doors open to the pink fire of an Ozark sunset, cocktail parties, claret diluted with water for him, the grownups rosy from steam baths and bourbon. Roger kept walking west. Giant wheels flung soot into his face. His hands were smeared with oil, his mouth thick with grit. Floyd’s voice in his head said, Here. Stop. This is it. A spot among the vast triangular trusses seemed to emit a fleeting warmth; the grinding cacophony gave way to a lull, and for a moment, the bridge was as empty as the sky. Is that you? Roger asked, and the voice said, Yes. Take a deep breath. If only he could find Floyd’s arms again. The wind pried his fingers away from the railings; ka-blam, ka-blam, went the traffic. He staggered into the klieg-light glare of headlights. Horns honked, and he scuttled into shadows. The moon emerged, a thin slice of grapefruit. Without warning, strong arms seized him, and he was bundled into a patrol car, believing he was under arrest.

His father kept it quiet and made a large donation to the police benevolent association. Somehow, Roger had cut his hand, an ugly slice stitched with the doctor’s black thread. He was whisked into a new school and sent to a psychiatrist. After his sessions, his mother took him out for fried chicken and apple brown Betty. For peep’s sake, Roger, she said.

One Saturday, his father put him in the car and took him to Frayser, a community a few miles north. Nobody Roger knew ever went there. Among his friends and their parents, Frayser was a joke, a punch line. Frayser meant condemned buildings, trash blowing through vacant lots; the sight of a furtive dog with dangling teats, darting into a storm drain, made Roger want to cry. His father drove past junkyards and tenements to a wide windswept field dotted with markers. Here and there, men were shoveling dirt into holes. Roger clutched the armrest, realizing his father hadn’t said why they were coming.

This is the county cemetery, his father said. He parked and turned off the ignition. Where poor folks end up. The unknown and unclaimed. A potter’s field.

Did they make pots?

It’s an expression. I’d have thought you’d have known it by now.

Was Floyd here? Having deduced what was surely the reason for this visit, Roger, his heart racing, watched four workmen emerge from a shed, lugging a long box. This was Floyd’s funeral. That was why his father had brought him, it had to be. Wildly he searched for Kiki, the minister, church people, but there were only the bearers, out of step, weaving and bumping among the plots with the coffin in their arms, coming closer and closer. Roger saw a hole he hadn’t noticed before, a freshly dug grave. Would they make him do something? Would they accuse him—“You said you loved him!”? Panicked, he locked his door. His mother must have known, and that was why she hadn’t come.

Is that Mr. January? he blurted.

His father turned and goggled at him. Now why would you say that?

The bearers reached the hole and dropped the coffin in with a thunk so loud Roger heard it through the Cadillac’s thick windows. His mind reeled. Floyd was in the box, and now he was in the pit. The men started spading dirt into the grave.

Mr. January is buried at Memorial Park, his father said. His lips twitched. With fresh shock, Roger thought, He’ll tell Kiki what I said, and they’ll laugh. His stomach lurched.

Murder victims, suicides, tramps, his father said. He gestured across the forsaken field. He might have been a tour guide narrating a scene of gardens and waterfalls. Babies die, and lowlifes put them out with the trash. This is the ending to many crimes. Bums die in alleys, in fights, and nobody knows who they are. Often there’s no way to tell a victim from a perpetrator. They might be both.

Roger’s vision was blackening, dissolving; nausea stirred the mysterious recesses his mother called innards. Made off with himself, was how Pearl, their housekeeper, had put it the night the police chief called. After Roger’s parents had abandoned the supper table, Pearl gave him a deep look. That poor man made off with himself.

His father thumped the steering wheel. I’ll tell you a secret, son. I grew up in this neighborhood. Nobody knows except your mother. I got out as fast as I could. Believe it or not, this cemetery is what got me interested in the law, when I was about your age. Let’s walk around. I’ll show you the yellow fever victims.

Roger opened the door and vomited on a clump of dandelions.


“Come on,” Joan was saying. She tucked her purse under her arm and stood up. “You keep getting lost in thought. You okay?”

“Let me take care of this.” Roger got out his wallet with a feeling of déjà vu.

“No need, Roger. Next time.” Mark thumbed through some bills and placed them among their empty glasses.

The people at the next table, Colleen’s flying monkeys, looked over with glinting eyes. An empty cheese board and the dregs of Crayola-colored drinks sat before them. Joan moved toward the door, and Roger joined her, but Mark was still at the table and now on his phone.

“He’s hired a personal assistant,” Joan said. “They’re in constant contact. She’s very pretty.” She gave him a look.

“I’m sorry,” Roger said.

“I think they’re spending time at the condo.” Joan and Mark had a condominium downtown. They used it for entertaining. They also owned a house in Germantown, where they had raised their family, and apartments in New York and Rome.

Darkness had fallen. A chill from the street seeped through the plate-glass door where Roger and Joan waited. The restaurant had grown crowded, but Roger could still see Mark, who was putting his phone away. A second later, Mark shoved his chair back and knocked into someone—a woman. Colleen. A tray tumbled out of her arms. Glasses and bottles flew off and shattered on the floor. She sprawled and collapsed, her skirt hiked up and her underpants showing. After a shocked moment that quieted all around them, Mark floundered clumsily toward her, but the people at the next table were quicker. They sprang up. The squidman took Colleen’s hand and helped her sit up. One of the women draped a sweater over Colleen’s shoulders.

“Look what you did,” the man snarled to Mark. “Get away from her.” Mark stepped back, looking wildly around.

“He did it on purpose,” said the woman who had donated the sweater. “Manager! We need help over here. Someone call 9-1-1.” One of her friends whipped out a phone.

“He was picking on her all evening,” the first woman announced to all within hearing.

“It’s assault,” another woman said. “Does anyone have a blanket?”

Colleen was lying down now, eyes closed, her head pillowed on someone’s jacket. The manager ran over with a tablecloth and laid it over her legs. A moment later, she was surrounded, and Roger couldn’t see her anymore, or Mark.

Joan leaned up to speak into Roger’s ear. “I’ve got to get Mark.”

She burrowed into the crowd, and he followed. Chairs were askew, people milling around. At the bar, he slapped down a twenty for a bottle of water and a ginger ale. A woman was huddled on a barstool with a hand over her face, saying, “I think there’s a piece of glass in my eye.”

Roger had lost Joan. He edged past the prone Colleen and her hive. People knelt beside her, holding her hands and saying, “Hang on, Colleen. The medics are on the way.”

“I reached her roommates and her mom,” someone said. “They’re coming.”

Roger headed toward the back of the restaurant, where an open patio was surrounded by a railing and trees. Had Mark run away? No, there was his tall silhouette. He stood beside a trellis, talking on his phone and flanked by two young men, security guards, Roger realized. Twinkle lights gleamed in the overhanging wistaria, radiant and celebratory. As Roger approached, Mark spoke into his phone and put it away. Under the guards’ glare, he and Roger took seats at a wooden table where a candle smoked in a glass vase, as if just blown out. Abandoned plates held waffle fries and half-eaten sandwiches.

“Drink this.” Roger gave Mark the water and ginger ale. “It’ll dilute the alcohol.”

“God, this is stupid,” Mark said. “She can’t possibly be hurt that bad.”

“Stay calm. If the police come, be cooperative. Don’t show any anger. Don’t blame her. Stick to the barest, basic facts. Don’t say you were at fault, and don’t accept fault.”

“I wasn’t, and I won’t. Where’s Joanie?” Mark dabbled a French fry in ketchup and ate it.

“She’s here somewhere. Did you call her just now?”

“That was business.”

“Don’t talk with anybody but a lawyer about this. Not friends or employees.”

Mark’s eyes flashed. Roger held up his palm.

“Can you be my lawyer?” Mark said. “Should I call Tommy?” His bulldog attorney.

“Call him. I can’t be anyone’s lawyer, but I can offer advice. Anyway, I’m a witness.”

Mark was already dialing when Joan plopped down at the table. Even in the dimness, Roger saw the shine of her fresh lipstick. Suddenly the air felt soft. A fugitive sweetness reached him, the scent of wistaria.

“So,” Joan said. She smiled at him.


Floyd’s voice lingered, a voice that was heartbeat, neck-smell, starched shirt, rescue. Say the year is 1880. A handsome cowboy combs his hair at a mirror, his day’s work done, and dons an embroidered waistcoat, ready for an evening out. It’s Floyd, and he and Roger push through the swinging doors of a saloon, the same doors in every Western town. Bang, bang, pivot and fire. Bad guys lurch and wobble and die. Cowboys topple off the stairs. Roger slides down the long shining bar, and a piano flips over, going zzzing.

After his father and Kiki had fallen in love, something else happened during the year leading up to Floyd’s death. Roger was thirteen. There was no getting out of church; his mother insisted on it. For Roger, it was a chance to see Floyd, who was a member of the choir, and who began to solo. Great is Thy faithfulness, great is Thy faithfulness . . . Floyd’s voice soared and sailed, powered by anguish, Roger realized. He hadn’t known misery could make for a beautiful song. Floyd’s ruddy face—dime-sized, given the distance to the pew where Roger sat with his parents—seemed to writhe. Roger was aware of his mother beside him, tense as a spring, and his father, blithe and relaxed, and somewhere in the multitudinous congregation lurked the incandescent Kiki. Floyd’s voice rose to the top of the vaulted sanctuary and trembled in stained-glass light. Roger’s mother stifled a sob. Summer and winter, springtime and harvest . . . All I have needed, Thy hand hath provided . . . Sunday after Sunday, Floyd swept them clean.


“They had an affair a few years ago,” Joan said the next day. “I am so disgusted.”

They strolled along a narrow path in the riverside park. She had asked him to meet her. The cottonwood trees were fully leafed. A flock of robins alighted at the water’s edge, and a tugboat hauled a barge toward New Orleans like a child straining to move a city block.

“I had a hunch,” she said, “and he finally admitted it. He didn’t know she was working there, though, and at first he didn’t recognize her. New hairstyle or something.”

The day was mild and windy. Dogs leaped for Frisbees, and picnickers anchored their blankets with coolers. Roger told her what he had found out. Colleen had been checked by paramedics and taken home. She was okay. Other witnesses supported Mark’s statement.

“If she files charges, she’s wasting her time,” he said.

“Sometimes I hate him. It never ends.” She turned to him. “And last night I realized . . .” Her eyes clung to his. “I love you, Roger. I’ve loved you for a long time.”

He had felt it coming when she stepped out of her car, even when he’d gotten her text. The lightning thrill of her words swept through him, and he reached for her, but even as she flung her arms around his neck, obligation and uncertainty weighed him down. He held her, and the shouts of the dog walkers became distant and hollow, as if shells were pressed over his ears. She felt so light and frail, he might have been holding a kite. Nervously he rubbed his thumbs down her knobby spine. Her tears splashed his cheek. He kissed her and stroked her hair, already wondering if he should marry her, if she would divorce Mark for him, and how he would feel about that, if the wrongness would make it more exciting. He wondered if he loved her. Yes. He loved her. Had loved her before he met Andrew and while he and Andrew were together. But did he love her more than he’d loved Floyd? They leaned against each other, her sobs shaking his chest, and he was reminded of a childhood game: you leaned back to see if the other person would catch you. Usually, people stood by and watched you fall. She kissed him frantically, and he smelled her sunscreen and new clothes. She could be free, and fast. Mark would have to let her go, and soon she and Roger could be like any other couple, going to restaurants and dinner parties. Gently he untangled her arms.

“Let me treat you to lunch,” he said. “You’ll feel better.”

“I can’t be seen.” She fanned her streaked face. “Come to the condo. We had a party the other night. There’s tons of food left over.”

“Where’s Mark?”

“He went to Nashville to look at some property. At least, that’s what he said.” She was crying again. “Please, just for an hour or so.”

“Well . . .”

“I’ve redecorated.” She wiped her eyes.

He went. The condominium building was blocky and boring, but roses bloomed along the walkways. There was no one at the reception desk. The clerk was sorting packages in a small back room. Joan didn’t hail her, and Roger was relieved. Already his guilt felt ancient. He and Joan were silent as they rode a lemony-scented elevator to the top floor.

“You haven’t been here since the Redbirds party,” she said as she unlocked the door.

A boozy celebration for the ballplayers and the city’s elite; he’d ducked out early. She led him inside and flicked her hand at the sleek new furniture and splendid paintings full of lace and vitreous eyes.

“It’s beautiful.” He wondered if what had happened at the river was an illusion, if he were only here as an old friend, admiring the new decor.

“Hungry?” Joan opened a huge shiny refrigerator.

They filled plates with barbecued ribs, slaw, and Key lime pie. She microwaved spaghetti, poured cold white wine, and set everything on a big glass table. They sat on teal leather chairs in front of skybox-sized windows overlooking the water. Far upriver, the M bridge was the width of his palm.

“To think a kayaker spotted the crack,” Joan said. “All those times we’ve gone over it, it could have broken apart.”

The three older bridges were much closer, their beams and latticework appearing as a tangle of metal. The rerouted I-40 traffic from the crippled M clogged the Memphis & Arkansas, which was already carrying I-55. Cars and big rigs crawled, bumper to bumper. It would always be Floyd’s bridge. How was it possible he still felt such emotion for him? More than anybody else ever. What of Andrew, and his parents, his mother back at the house with an aide bringing her lunch? It took nothing away from them. But what of Joan? He could tumble into this affair and lead a new life with her, and he wanted it.

The wind picked up, and the river flowed roughly, madly. The windows hummed.

“You used to love me,” Joan said. She was already on her third glass of wine. “I can’t stop thinking about you.”

“You and Mark have a family. You’re the Monroes.” It sounded as if he’d made a decision, and he was dismayed. Down the hall, pristine bedrooms awaited, filled with gray light and sealed off from the world.

“My daughter says, ‘Mom, why do you put up with it?’”

“You have a position to uphold,” he said.

“I’m sick of it. Damn me.”

“Am I your one last crazy thing?”

She laugh-sobbed, and something caught in her throat, and she choked. He brought her a glass of water. Her eyes were still tearing, but she motioned for him to sit down. He cut into his frosty pie, his heart as turbulent as the surging river. Joan sipped her water.

Voices sounded indistinctly out in the hallway, and someone rapped on the door. Joan blinked up from her plate, looking suddenly drained, an old animal raising its head from its bowl. The door swung open to reveal the desk clerk, passkey in hand, and another woman wearing a kerchief on her hair. The clerk vanished, and the other woman stood with eyes averted.

“Marisol! I forgot it was your day. Come in.” Joan’s smile looked stretched and unnatural. “This is my friend Roger LeFlore.”

“Hello,” Roger said.

“Will we be in your way, Marisol?” Joan said.

The woman shook her head.

“I remembered to get more furniture polish,” Joan said.


He spent the rest of the afternoon in court. His last case of the day concerned second-degree murder. A month earlier, a jury had found the defendant guilty, and Roger had been deliberating: deadly actions, but committed during a time of high emotion. Before sentencing, he gave the convicted man a chance to speak. The man said he was sorry for stabbing his neighbor and running over him with a car. Someone in the courtroom kept sneezing. Pollen had found its way through the windows and lay on the sills like gold dust. When Roger pronounced the sentence, the man’s girlfriend shrieked in the same pitch as the sneeze—she was the sneezer. The victim’s family wept and embraced each other. A bailiff led the man away.

By the time Roger stepped outside, it was raining and getting dark. His usual parking lot was under repair, and he had forgotten where he’d left his car. Across Poplar Avenue, lights shone at the bail bond agencies. Silhouettes clustered at the doors. Joan’s I love you came rushing back. How could she? Couldn’t she tell how frightened and insignificant he felt? He ached, knowing that unless he made an effort, she and Mark would slip out of his life. In those last discombobulated moments at the condo, she had blotted barbecue sauce from her lips and risen to her feet like a genie sliding back into a bottle, and he thanked her for lunch, the words feeling jumbled in his mouth, yet coming out automatically, sounding chilly and formal, almost reproachful. He couldn’t tell if she even heard him; down the hall, a vacuum cleaner roared.

Now, in the drizzly dusk, a man detached himself from the group at the bail bondsmen’s and started across the street. “Hey, Judge,” he called, “wait.”

Roger paused. Rain needled his forehead. Dodging traffic, the man reached the middle of the avenue. His features pursed in the harsh streetlight, and the fired aide sprang to Roger’s mind—Rae—and led to the image of her boyfriend smoking in the driveway. Before he could check the man’s hands for a weapon, a big tour bus passed between them, long as a barge, its windows an undersea green. In a moment, they would come face to face. Canterbury, Canterbury, Canterbury, can’t.

He ran, his feet slapping the pavement, his lungs heaving. Gradually he became aware no one was following. The only sound was his panting. He stopped and looked back. The man had retreated, blending in so well with the others at the bail bondsmen’s that Roger, try as he might, couldn’t pick him out.