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Augustine, Part 2

(Augustine . . . )

I spent a lot of time in the summers with Augustine. In my childlike way, I hoped that he would teach me some special secret. I would sit on the bed in his one-room shack, with the bare, twice-used, two-by-four framing, and listen to the sound that the water coming to a boil in his coffee pot made. He would give me a plate of rice and red beans. If I asked, he would let me look at his heavy gold ring. It had the broad, soft face of a faintly smiling child on it. That smile was so subtle and worldly that it always made me wonder what the child knew. I would try his ring on all of my fingers. It was too large, even for my thumb. I would look into the face on Augustine’s ring and feel an inexplicable thrill of terror. Each time I looked into the face, it seemed new and changed in some small way that I could not explain. Holding Augustine’s ring made me feel as though I were wearing some part of his body and I returned it quickly when asked.

Sometimes, after dinner, I would walk across the freshly plowed fields with Augustine. Once, he told me that the stars were fires in the mouths of faraway caves and that, if I looked carefully enough, I might see the faces of the people who lived in those sky shelters. He said that if I were ever lost in the forest and knew how to sing a special song, they would take me up into their caves and keep me safe for the night. But he never taught me the song.

Finally, I did ask Augustine about his wife. He sucked on his pipe stem, let out his breath, and said, “An American woman. She left me and went away with some guy with more money than me. A Goddamn cannery bookkeeper. Living the high class life in town now.” Then he looked at me for a moment and said, “You go to school. Better you forget about women until you know something.” A week later, he gave me a small dictionary and a frayed copy of the 1941 Book of Knowledge.

One evening, when I was nine, I was standing among the men, in the yard between our house and the bunkhouse, where the single men lived, when an argument began between my uncle Valeriano and one of the new men. The argument grew and grew, Uncle Valeriano’s voice, then the new man’s, faster and faster, until there was nothing left but an awful silence. Then the sound of the new man’s footsteps on the dusty earth, as he walked back to the bunkhouse. Everyone stood still in the thick, red light and listened to the quick sound of the new man’s footsteps coming out of the bunkhouse. His revolver’s blue cylinder snapped closed as he walked toward Valeriano. Everyone stood frozen, waiting for the crack of the gun, waiting for the hard sound of Valeriano’s body hitting the ground.

Then, “Hssst!” Everyone’s head turned, knowing that the shape coming out of the fading light was Augustine, drawn from across the field into the lethal vacuum. I remember seeing the stillness in Augustine’s face. I saw his eyes, looking into the new man’s face, his presence blotting out Valeriano and the other men, until I could see nothing but Augustine’s face and eyes. Augustine’s dark hand, with its hard, blue-black veins, reached out to the man. The man’s gun hand rose to meet Augustine’s as though drawn by the gold ring on his finger, and then the new man’s hand was empty. Augustine, held the revolver, then turned and was gone. He went into the new darkness so swiftly and quietly that I thought I could hear the air sliding into the space behind him as he strode across the field.

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