There were once two towns flanking both banks of the Mississippi River. The town on the north bank thrived both economically and socially while the south bank was riddled by poverty and wrought with despair. The only thing linking the two communities was a small footbridge running the width of the river. The north end of town considered the engineering of this footbridge as an unfortunate incident since, before its construction, it took nearly an hour for any south sider to reach the north end of town. But after the bridge was finished in the winter of 1948, anybody could walk from the south end of town to the north end of town in just under fifteen minutes—depending on the time of day, of course.
The north and south towns I speak of were once referred to, respectively, as Benedict and Luther. As you can imagine, the town of Benedict was unapologetically secure and clean. There was a town doctor who graduated from Yale, a town lawyer who graduated from Harvard, and a town teacher who graduated from Sarah Lawrence. There were plenty of policemen and firemen—though their services were rarely needed considering the town’s safety record was nearly impeccable. There was also a salon the women frequented, and a barbershop the men frequented. It was in these two places where most of the gossip—and, subsequently, the lies—were exchanged. The town of Benedict was simple, but pristine.
The town of Luther was a stark contrast to the confines of Benedict. There was one school, the credibility of which was constantly called into question, and crime was at its highest level since the turn of the century. Morphine was the drug of choice in Luther and hundreds of WWII veterans found comforts within the town’s borders, especially since the drug was so easily attainable. A dilapidated grocery store was near the town’s only park and the only white resident was a burly man named Buford who owned the local butcher shop. On Sundays, most of the townsfolk could be found at the Baptist Church on the town’s east edge. Quite frankly, the church was about the only orderly thing in Luther. It represented a place where people could come together—donning their only respectable attire, naturally—in search of the solace that was usually reserved for the people along the river’s illustrious north end.
In the town of Benedict—no more than fifty yards from the aforementioned barbershop—lived a mute. The mute lived on the second floor of a mansion he had converted into a duplex—a duplex he shared with an Argentinian doctor named Santiago. Santiago was thin and wiry with a golden face full of wrinkles and wisdom. He had exceptionally dark hair and an even darker mustache, and always seemed to be sporting a smile. The townspeople of Benedict trusted Santiago, which is more than could be said for the mute. The mute, whose name was Copeland, had invested what little money he had in American munitions companies shortly before Hitler invaded Poland and, by the time the Third Reich fell, had made a small fortune. The money he had come to invest was money he inherited after his parents were killed in a train derailment outside of Tallahassee two days before his eighteenth birthday. Copeland never cared too much for his parents, but he was still terribly sad when this tragedy came to pass. Along with the money, he also inherited the family mansion near Benedict’s town center. The duplex was located on Claiborne Street, an attractive stretch of road where the town’s most affluent resided. The street’s antebellum homes sported massive Roman columns and wide windows that looked out on their peaceful street. Large steel gates surrounded the complexes and their faultless lawns were always green, even in the crisp winter months. Copeland’s mansion was the only mansion to be converted into something that was rentable; this brought many whispers of speculation as to why the renovation had happened. Of course, inevitably, there was speculation Copeland was struggling financially after the death of his parents. But this simply was not accurate. In truth, Copeland was merely lonely. He spent a great many hours in silence, and his empty house would only worsen his undeniable lonesomeness. So, in the spring of 1944, after the Argentinian returned from Picardy, France, Copeland rented the room to Santiago.
An Argentinian living on Claiborne Street was sure to raise eyebrows. But once the town of Benedict discovered Santiago was a doctor—not to mention a war hero—they were quite accepting. This was more than could be said about their attitude toward Copeland, for they treated poor Copeland like a Hun. Mothers could often be seen ushering their children across the street as he made his way into town. Together, however, Santiago and Copeland got along quite well, especially during the later months of Santiago’s residence. Most of the other townsfolk in Benedict knew very little about Copeland, but on many afternoons they would see Santiago and Copeland strolling in the park or dining on oysters and beignets at Café L’Amande. They often got haircuts together and both enjoyed the films of Howard Hawks and John Ford. Whenever they were seen walking about town, Santiago was often speaking animatedly, mixing between Spanish and English as he flung his arms wildly about. Copeland would listen attentively, occasionally nodding at the Argentinian with thoughtful regard. Most nights the two could be found on the duplex’s front porch, Santiago smoking his pipe while Copeland drank beer from his favorite Mason jar. Usually, Copeland was the first to grow tired and would retire to his bed upstairs. This left Santiago alone to finish his pipe, open the evening newspaper, and fall asleep in the rocking chair, not waking until the summer mosquitos finally pestered him inside.
Santiago’s reputation grew steadily and by the winter of his third year he had a fairly sizable client list. Not only did he service members of Benedict, he also carved away time to visit those in Luther. They considered the Argentinian quite lively and found his demeanor strong and agreeable. Most of those in Luther could not afford his services, so Santiago spent one day a week in the town center and offered free medical services to anyone who sought them. At first, this disgruntled the town of Benedict, as their good doctor was only available six days a week rather than seven. But, eventually, they began to adapt and accept the fact that Santiago might be needed elsewhere. It was perhaps the only thing the people of Benedict were willing to offer those in Luther.
On one chilly Tuesday morning, Santiago took Copeland to Luther and suggested he explore the city. Copeland spent the day wandering the streets and was perfectly happy being lost. It wasn’t often Copeland ventured outside the borders of Benedict, and he was happy Santiago had suggested they go.
The footbridge connecting the two towns was scheduled to be finished on the last day of August—a month that had seen twelve record temperatures—but, unfortunately, the mayor of Benedict, a wheezing man with a perpetually red face named Oscar LeBeauf, blocked a measure for additional safety cables along the bridge’s railing. While this issue was being sorted, no persons, whether from Benedict or Luther, were allowed to cross the bridge. This didn’t seem like a terribly large issue at the time until a little girl in Luther grew terribly ill. Santiago was informed of this while feasting on a tray of crawfish with Copeland at Café L’Amande. Santiago left at once, making his way to the bridge with his medical bag in tow. Upon arriving, however, a policeman told him the bridge was closed and he would not be allowed across. Santiago pleaded with the man, but his petitions fell deafly on the policeman’s ears. He was told he would have to go around the river, adding another forty-five minutes to his journey. Santiago hurried as fast as his Argentinian legs would carry him, but it was of no use. Three minutes after he arrived, the girl succumbed to the sickness in her belly and died.
Six days later, the footbridge was completed.
After the girl’s passing, Santiago made his way back to Claiborne Street feeling rotten and weary. When he arrived home Copeland was waiting for him on the porch, sipping at the beer in his dingy Mason jar. Santiago told him of the entire affair, growing most agitated when he spoke of the policeman on the bridge. Copeland listened to him patiently, pausing only once to nod his head and take another sip of beer. When Santiago was finished he took a seat in his rocking chair but was too worked up to light his pipe. He told Copeland he had some errands to run and would return around supper. Copeland smiled at him and the Argentinian went into town.
Santiago’s first stop was at his bank, where he withdrew $300 and retrieved his treasured Medalla El Ejército Argentino al Herido en Combate from his safe deposit box. His second stop was at Café L’Amande where he had a glass of chartreuse and three beignets before he left one of his three hundred dollar bills as payment and scurried out the door before the owner could stop him. Santiago’s third stop was at the hardware store where he spent very little time in the back before retrieving the item he had come for. He paid for this item with the second hundred-dollar bill and insisted it was payment for the credit he had accrued. The shopkeeper, an affable, but odd-looking fellow named Walter, insisted Santiago’s credit was fine and that he only owed for the bag of nails and hammer he had picked up the week previous. Santiago assured him this wasn’t true and left the store with his item in hand and the hundred left on the counter. Walter didn’t think much of this at the time—after all, it was quite rare for the doctor to be wrong—but in the coming days, the image of Santiago leaving the store with his sagging shoulders and slumped head would haunt Walter for the rest of his days.
Santiago returned home just as dusk wrapped its arms around Benedict and found Copeland still sitting in his rocking chair smiling at the giant oak trees wavering along Claiborne. Santiago apologized for rushing off in such haste, but Copeland brushed his remarks aside and offered him a seat. Santiago declined, saying he was quite tired from such a trying day, and would retire to his room for the evening. Copeland sipped at his beer and smiled and nodded his goodnight before Santiago disappeared inside.
Santiago’s apartment was relatively sparse. There was a tall bookcase situated by the fireplace that held mostly books of the pre-Civil War era. There was a desk that held his stationary and a small gas lamp next to his twin mattress. In his kitchen—where he spent very little time—there was a kettle for tea and a cutting board he used to serve meats and cheeses to Copeland on rainy Saturday afternoons. They would often drink wine and watch the storm clouds roll off into the horizon as they nibbled on Imberico ham and aged Manchego. Apart from these meager belongings, Santiago’s first floor apartment had very little decoration.
He went to his fridge and found half a wedge of cheese and a few slices of Imberico left. He laid them out on his cutting board, poured himself a glass of remaining Rioja, and ate from the board slowly. When the meat and cheese were gone he washed and dried the cutting board, threw away the empty bottle of wine, and placed his beloved Medalla El Ejército Argentino al Herido en Combate along with the last hundred-dollar bill in a legal envelope and wrote on its front: COPELAND. When he was satisfied everything was in order, he retrieved the item he had purchased from the hardware store: a length of rope roughly around five feet. Coming from the porch Santiago could hear Copeland rocking back and forth in his chair listening to the Louisiana wind rustling the branches of those monstrous oaks. He smiled at the sounds coming from the front porch before tying one end of the rope around a beam in the ceiling and the other around his neck. Carefully, he situated the only chair in his apartment below the beam and stepped onto the seat. Outside, as Copeland rocked away, the Mason jar resting lazily in his lap, Santiago kicked the chair out from beneath his dusty shoes and snapped his neck.