Delicious Foods

They moved into the dining room and he sat. How long you think you’ll need to stay? Bethella asked. She probably hadn’t meant for it to sound impatient, but a consistent quality in her voice telegraphed impatience no matter her intentions. A long pause clouded the space between them.

Eddie didn’t know how long he would stay, maybe only until somebody from the farm discovered where he’d gone, or until he figured out how to get Darlene back. But he couldn’t face that. He winced at Bethella’s ability to reject—it was as if she had brought him back to his drug-addict mother again. The pressure she put on him to explain and the memory of her previous rejection rising up a second time made him feel like someone had taken hold of his gut and twisted until it emptied out at both ends. He projected his agony through his face and let out a strange sound, a sigh blended with a growl, burnished with a whimper. Then he put his wrists in front of his face and curled into his own lap.

Bethella pulled her shoulders back slightly and remained silent for a while in the face of his animal response. She swallowed. Oh no, dear! she said. I meant how long do you need to stay before you go get your mother. I’m sorry. She patted his shoulder and stroked it. It’s fine, everything’s fine, she soothed. And though it wasn’t—and might never be—the words painted over everything. I mean, I hope you’re not expecting me to go with you. I’ll help you to the amount that I can, but it’s probably best if you don’t bring her up here and—

Eddie scowled and his aunt closed her mouth. After a pause, she sighed and turned on the television, which she kept in the dining room for some reason. Afternoon-news trumpets blared.

Stay awhile, she said to the television. I understand. It’s okay.

She lied, he figured, because the truth was always a tiger, and the past, with its ugliness and struggle, was a ditch so deep with bodies it could pass for a starless night.

After the news, she showed him to what she called the guest room—actually the attic—by pulling down the staircase from the ceiling with a rope and urging him up without going in herself.

A former student in need of sanctuary was my last guest, she told him. About a year ago. A few months before Fremont passed.

Eddie flinched.

Right, I guess you didn’t hear that Fremont passed. She sighed. Since your mother dragged you off to God knows where.

Eddie shook his head and stared at her dumbly. I reckoned he was working, he said.

You know he had a bad heart. I mean a good heart, but it didn’t work so well. Plus the hypertension. And hard as I tried, I could not get that man to eat right. It happened at work. Bethella paused, her eyes glistening. February seventeenth last year, she whispered.

He was a good man, Eddie managed to say as he turned to climb the stairs. He loved music.

Lit by a single bulb, a twin-size mattress, neatly dressed with striped bedclothes faintly burned by the old dryer, created a small oasis in the middle of a disorderly storage space. A pilly orange blanket lay on top. Gradually disintegrating piles of dusty jazz albums, carefully folded woolen blankets, a broken decades-old vacuum cleaner, and an antique fan clogged the periphery of the room. A long box that looked like an old suitcase caught Eddie’s attention, but when he unsnapped its clasps, with some difficulty, to discover a shining brass trombone inside, nestled in red velveteen, the sight put him in mind of both Fremont and a body lying in a coffin and he flipped the case shut. Eddie stared around the dim room, doubtful that he could sleep well there. He pictured nights of watching for unpleasant signs in the inky crevice where the halves of the roof came together.

In less than an hour Bethella changed her mind and insisted that Eddie see a doctor. My doctor, she said, she’s a Chinese, perhaps assuming that her nephew would not accept a white physician. Eddie wasn’t immediately swayed, though, and Bethella gave him a lecture on the stubbornness of certain black men in the family, like his grandfather P. T. Randolph and his uncle Gunther. You’re acting just like your granddad. He enjoyed sitting in his pain and just wallowing, she said. Well, Gunther’s got all the time in the world to feel sorry for himself now in prison. All of you are smart enough to know exactly how the world screwed you, and the Man screwed you, and that there’s no hope to change it. Your daddy wasn’t like that. See, he was on the Hardison side. A fine man. He tried to change things!

Eddie shot a weary look at his aunt.

Oh, they got him, she continued proudly, but at least he died fighting. She scratched her biceps and continued. Fine. Be hardheaded. But I don’t have any time for a young man who loses his phalanges and won’t see a doctor. And you’re going to tell me how this happened and who is responsible ASAP so help me God.

At first Eddie resented Bethella’s involvement and resisted going to a doctor merely for the sake of resisting, but after a while he admitted the stupidity of his stubbornness, and weighing it against the possibility of gangrene, the workings of which Bethella explained to him in detail, he agreed to go. She offered to pay half or figure out how to put him on her insurance. I’ll say you’re my son, she promised. Quietly, he enjoyed that idea.

Dr. Fiona Hong had a clever face and an easy, staccato laugh. Her limbs seemed loose for someone in medicine, someone who had to jab folks with needles. Her swooping arms won Eddie over. It didn’t bother him that she called him by his first name. When she unwrapped his bandages, she did not register very much shock, or even curiosity. Instead she seemed impressed, almost thrilled. Maybe doctors liked unusual cases.

We’re going to need to get you to the OR, Eddie. Pretty much right now. Her bright, possibly nervous laugh sounded like a bark. You’ll also need antibiotics and painkillers, she informed him. And we’ll see each other again soon. Okay?

Several days and doctors later, as the two of them rode back to Bethella’s house, his aunt’s thin patience disappeared. Her head flicking toward him like a bird’s, her eyes reddish and intent and halfway off the road, she said, You’re not telling me what happened because you don’t want me to know what your mother did. When are you planning to stop protecting her? Stop protecting her. What, did she do it herself?

Eddie did not agree with Bethella, but he knew better than to sass the most responsible member of the older generation, especially when he needed to sleep in her attic. If he argued, she would pull rank and stick to her version anyway. Mostly he wanted to make sure his aunt knew that Darlene was not to blame.

A few weeks after arriving in St. Cloud, Eddie started to pick up jobs here and there. He randomly encountered Sandy, the waitress from the Hungry Haven, at a drugstore and she told him that an overworked construction guy who didn’t do concrete had heard about a divorcée in a Victorian outside Pierz who needed a whole pool patio and front walkway done. Pouring concrete didn’t require much finesse, and the construction guy could handle anything Eddie couldn’t. When Eddie met with him, the guy made the call while Eddie sat right there. People did favors for strangers here, Eddie noted, without exactly being friendly. Nevertheless, he felt like he had a reprieve. Bethella had mixed feelings about his decision to work. Sometimes she warned him to get a diploma, other times she openly wished for solitude, seeming to imply that he should get a steady job and get gone.

Eventually Bethella stopped tolerating Eddie’s announcements about going to find Darlene. Your mother and I—she would begin, always neglecting to finish the thought. Then she’d say, Just don’t. You have to have a bottom line.

Darlene had called the house, begging him to return, but it soon dawned on Eddie that she hadn’t quit drugs. Their conversations splintered into anger and incoherence, and while brooding over their relationship in his workspace—aka Bethella’s basement—one day, he admitted to himself that some problems—and some people—can never get fixed, even by a skilled handyman.

previous 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 ..74 next