Delicious Foods

St. Cloud pacified him—its evenly spaced suburban homes reminded him of a balsa-wood city he’d seen in a children’s book. Even its housing complexes sat comfortably beyond tall, healthy trees and sprawling plots of grass, and though a hundred Day-Glo toys might lie upturned on one driveway, the next several lots would have neatly arranged yards already flashing a few green shoots, while here and there a crocus forecast a pleasant spring. It felt more like home than Ovis, a place he hadn’t seen in almost a decade.

Eddie circled the area for nearly half an hour without getting out of the car, suddenly embarrassed not to have hands after what he took to be Sandy’s condescension. But eventually, thinking of how his mother needed him back in Louisiana, he parked at a beauty shop and nudged the door open with his shoulder, holding his arms behind his back with calculated ease. The women at Marquita’s did not know Bethella, but they did know a different beauty shop, the Clip Joint, on the west side. That place had closed for the day by the time Eddie arrived, so, finally exhausted, no longer in the kind of pain that prohibits sleep, he moved the car into the corner of a deserted parking lot, contorted his body into the hatchback, and took a long nap until it got too cold to sleep and he had to turn the engine on, twisting the key in the ignition with his teeth.

When he visited the Clip Joint the next morning, he kept his wrists shoved into his pockets. It was best to keep them raised, but self-consciousness had overtaken him. A beautiful fat woman in a skintight black-and-leopard outfit said she knew his aunt and told him exactly where to find her. She then began a long one-sided conversation, first about how much she admired Bethella, then about the situation in Rwanda and several other subjects. He walked backward out of the shop and she continued to talk, turning her attention toward her coworkers instead.

Still wearing the sweatshirt, now for warmth as well as subterfuge, he arrived at the address the woman had given him and stood on the stoop for a moment, fearing he had the wrong information, then ascended the remaining steps and rang the doorbell. When he swung his forearms, the fabric concealed his wounds and flopped over his wrists in a congenial way, almost like the ears of a friendly dog. He thought that this awkward solution, along with the baggy pants, might make him look enough like a normal seventeen-year-old to fool his aunt for a while. He stuck his wrists back into his pockets.

Presently, he heard movement inside the house, perhaps someone’s feet descending a carpeted staircase, then he saw a finger move a bunched-up taffeta curtain at the side of the door, exposing one of his aunt’s eyes, which registered instant shock. Eddie heard a muffled squeal of delight, and the air moved as she threw open the door in one wide swing. Bethella was a slight woman with a skeptical eyebrow and a high forehead. Grayer now, in chalk-mark streaks, her thin hair stuck to her skull under a pantyhose cap—she hadn’t yet put on today’s wig. A homemade dress with tiny daisies hung on her like it would on a wire hanger, her collarbones poking up, her angular fingers tipped with fragmented nail polish.

The second-to-last time he’d seen her, the Thanksgiving of his tenth year, Bethella had shown up at the Houston apartment he shared with his mother carrying a sweet potato pie encased in tinfoil. Before crossing the threshold, Bethella had told his mother, You’ve got one last chance to be honest with me, Darlene. Have you been using? When his mother shouted, No! Bethella hurled the pie sideways onto the stoop, where it broke and stuck. Then she did an about-face and marched across the pavement to her car.

In her vestibule, she hugged Eddie, and he noticed she had on the same light gardenia perfume she had worn then. The scent returned Eddie to the time when he was eleven and had briefly stayed with Bethella and her husband, Fremont Smalls, in Houston. They had taken him in one night when Darlene had used heavily and gotten stabbed by someone the adults kept calling a friend or her friend, but even then he wondered what kind of friend could stab someone bad enough to require a hospital stay. Between her reluctance to return him to Darlene and his mother’s unpredictability, Bethella ended up keeping him for a week. But she didn’t like children much, and after Eddie accidentally toppled a vase from Thailand—which hadn’t even broken—she decided, as he figured it, to wait long enough that she would not have to admit any causality and then deliver him back to his mother once she got home from the hospital. Or as Bethella put it, She needs you. Fremont worked long hours, he wasn’t home often enough to weigh in on the matter. Two days later, Bethella returned Eddie to his apartment at dusk and locked him in hastily, not wanting to interact with his mother, but as soon as Eddie entered, he realized that Darlene had gone again already. He knelt on the couch, pulled the blinds apart, and watched Bethella drive away.

Bethella now taught social studies and French in the St. Cloud school system, she told him. She and Fremont had moved north from Houston to be closer to his family, and he had worked at Melrose Quarry almost five years.

From what his mother often said about Bethella, he expected to find empties piled in the closets and the backs of cabinets, but he saw none. Darlene felt that Bethella had her nerve judging Darlene when she had her own habits, but like many families, everyone wandered around like children in a funhouse—they could hardly see one another around the corners, and what they could see was completely distorted.

The sweatshirt trick did not fool Bethella. Almost immediately after standing back from his stiff hug, she stared at his right sleeve, lunged forward like someone trying to catch a falling plate, and seized his forearm. As she unsheathed his arm, her face took on an expression mixing compassion with horror.

Good God Almighty, Edward. What on earth! When did this happen?

Eddie supposed that she’d asked When because it was easier to answer than How. A few days ago, he said.

Bethella said, Lord have mercy, almost whispering, her lids narrowed, jaw low. Lord have mercy.

Everybody black knows how to react to a tragedy. Just bring out a wheelbarrow full of the Same Old Anger, dump it all over the Usual Frustration, and water it with Somebody Oughtas, all of which Bethella did. Then quietly set some globs of Genuine Awe in a circle around the mixture, but don’t call too much attention to that. Mention the Holy Spirit whenever possible. Bethella shook her head and spoke hazily of the Lord’s Plan.

We have to get you to a doctor, she said. Who did this? Why? Where have you been?

Too many questions to answer at once, Eddie thought. It’s okay now, he told her, which seemed to pacify her momentarily, but it didn’t take long for her to peer at him, her skeptical eyebrow rising like a drawbridge.

Okay in what sense? she said.

I have to go back for my mom.

Bethella pulled her chin back and shouted, Oh, Darlene! as if his mother were standing there. I am guessing this isn’t the first time, she said. What the Sam Hill has that lady gotten you into now, that someone did this to you? Come in already, boy, let me close the door. Hands! My God!

Mostly Bethella’s house smelled of mold, with hints of stale candy, mothballs, and something earthy, maybe manure from the garden or chitterlings boiled last night. Dust had settled on the plastic-covered furniture. Nobody had sat on it in a long time. Eddie decided not to be the first and took a seat in the kitchen. Bethella walked over to the kitchen phone, announcing that she was calling her doctor, but Eddie begged her not to, insisting that he did not need help, that the wounds did not even hurt much anymore. It took some doing to convince her, but she eventually relaxed and offered him tea in a chipped mug, and, wanting to placate her more than he wanted the beverage, he accepted.

You sip it out of that straw, she said.

The hot liquid was weird and bitter, something herbal you couldn’t improve even with sugar.

Maté, she explained. From South America.

Having summers off allowed Bethella to travel and bring back bizarre cultural things. Eddie sipped, asking himself why exotic stuff always had to be disgusting. Bitter vegetables, fish heads. Trying not to taste, he commented on the odd flavor of the drink, knowing at once that this type of discomfort would color his whole visit. So much for freedom.

Bethella wrinkled her nose and said, And you won’t be smoking in my house.

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