Delicious Foods

Other nights she didn’t come home at all, and instead her keys jangled in the lock at dawn, startling him into alertness. The front door would bang open against the drywall, followed by the twin thuds of her handbag on the carpet and her body on the squeaky couch. He would close his bedroom door so as not to disturb her. Quiet morning sounds from the outside would smooth everything over. Cheeping birds, car engines, a rooster someone kept, perhaps illegally, in a backyard, somewhere in the complex of dusty two-level brick buildings from the early 1970s. Through his mother’s arrival he’d attempt sleep—though after struggling into slumber he’d always doze more comfortably for another hour or two before getting up for school, knowing Darlene had again escaped the nameless dangers of the night world.

One Tuesday morning in June, on one of the last days of fifth grade, as he lay between unconscious dreams and waking fantasies, he pictured a time years earlier, when they had lived in Ovis with his father, before coming to Houston. (We’re moving to be nearer to Aunt Bethella, his mother had said, but even at nine years old, he suspected she had ulterior motives.) Before the move, they’d had a blond-brick ranch house with a backyard—a real yard—a limitless rectangle of parched crabgrass that grew larger and greener in his imagination the further time ran away with it. In the evenings, crowds of grackles would settle in a live oak in the corner by the chain-link fence. Their black iridescent feathers had a natural elegance, and the birds peered at him with mocking intelligence, like well-dressed rich folks encountering a vagrant on a red carpet. They didn’t want some of his food, it seemed, they meant to cheat him out of all of it. Their raspy noises sounded more like broken radios than birdcalls, and to make their cries they widened their beaks and puffed their feathers with so much force that it looked like they might explode. The way they strutted and sneered, Eddie decided that these birds had inside them the souls of angry black people from the olden days, ghosts come back to settle some ageless vendetta.

His father, Nat Hardison, who could now qualify as such an outraged spirit, had lived in that house with them, but Eddie, who turned six the month after his father died, couldn’t summon many clear memories of him—a bedtime story about a whale, the green marbled tackle box they took on a fishing trip, the scent of Old Spice aftershave. His mother kept a photo of Dad in his air force uniform on a shelf by her bed, facing away so that she wouldn’t see it while lying down. The sun had turned the picture mauve, but from that pinkish dreamworld, his dad glowed back, displaying his L-square jaw and high cheekbones, showing his teeth as he smiled.

Eddie remembered chasing the grackles in the old backyard, maybe because their menacing weirdness barged in on his need for order. In his fantasy, Eddie knew that if he could only clear all the birds from the backyard, his father would return—not the stiff, fading image, but the real, lanky man whose crossed leg he would ride like a horse into that unhad future. He found a horseshoe embedded in the grass and tossed it at the fence. As the iron clattered against the chain link, black wings fluttered everywhere around him; piercing cries rang out across the neighborhood. The sense of his father’s presence came on so powerfully that it woke him.

Daddy? he said.

Then came the realization that he was alone in Houston, a thought that ripened into terror.

Ma?

He did not find her on the sofa, or anywhere else. He searched for evidence that she’d come in and left, but he didn’t see the bag, the shoes, not even the clothes she would sometimes hang on doorknobs or abandon near the bed, clothes he would later fold and put away, arrange neatly in the hamper, or leave on the bed for her as the photo of his father watched, he hoped, approvingly.

When the school day was about to start and his mother hadn’t appeared, Eddie left early and ran to Mrs. Vernon’s bakery to tell her that his mother had vanished. Mrs. Vernon, solid in as many ways as one could think of, owned her home and ran the shop practically by herself. The bakery sold staples like loaves and rolls but also red velvet layer cakes, cookies, and coconut towers for weddings. The smells lured kids, made her place their first stop at the strip mall, even before the video-game arcade. Mrs. Vernon could always tell who had big problems in their lives. The neighbors called it a gift, but everybody had issues; Mrs. Vernon just happened to ask the right questions and didn’t mind getting involved. To a certain extent.

Once she understood Eddie’s troubles, Mrs. Vernon immediately called the police. He watched the hands on the big clock above the glass display cases inch closer to the start of school while Mrs. Vernon remained on hold, the receiver wedged between her cheek and shoulder, pulling the looped cord taut. Eddie admired Mrs. Vernon’s levelheaded attitude as she sold beignets and translucent coffee even while attending to his predicament. He entertained the fantasy that she would adopt him if Ma never got back. But this thought came too close to wishing his mother dead and he felt guilty for it. Instead of coveting Mrs. Vernon’s motherly ways, he occupied himself by pretending he had his choice of the different cookies in the display—green pistachio leaves, pink and brown checkerboards, squares buried in chocolate. He breathed in their almondy aroma.

I’d like to report a missing person, Mrs. Vernon said. Name Darlene Hardison. She started to spell his mother’s name and stopped short. Oh, you do, do you? Mm-hmm. Another pause. It don’t matter about what she do, sir. It’s that she got a young son waiting on her, and he right here. Her voice brightened. Really, now? Would you mind checking your records?

Keeping the phone wedged against her ear, Mrs. Vernon gave someone change, paid full attention to customers for several minutes. A few times she made eye contact with Eddie and raised her eyebrows to say they still had her on hold. Then she said, dejectedly, into the phone, So she’s not down there, huh? She cupped her hand over the mouthpiece and addressed Eddie. When the last time you saw her?

Last night, he said, around nine thirty.

Half past nine last night, Mrs. Vernon repeated to the cop on the phone, and froze her face into a pout during a long pause. Friday morning sound like a long time, Officer. Don’t you think—no, I suppose you don’t. At the end of the call, she sighed and said, Thank you for your help, and Eddie could tell she meant Thanks for nothing. He forced his tears back up into his head. Mrs. Vernon gave him a slice of cake in a Tupperware box to save for lunch but it only made him feel better enough to relax his face. The best possible cake couldn’t help.

Even one day to wait for your missing mother is forever. Eddie told a bad friend at school about his mother and the kid said, Every second you don’t do nothing, somebody could be killing her and you’re not preventing the killing of her! During recess a kid called Doody but really named Heath tried to cheat at finger football and Eddie stomped on his foot so hard Doody wept and said that Eddie had broken it even though he could walk fine after five minutes. No teacher witnessed this; no authority heard about it later.

Eddie looked for his mother on the humid, sweaty journey home. When he got back to the apartment, he kept thinking she would call if she could get to a phone. As he searched the rooms, he found that she had left a favorite blouse with gold threads sewn into the piping. His feverish inventory of everything she had not taken proved that she had not meant to disappear, to leave behind the possessions she cherished or anything else she loved. Who had kidnapped her?

Hours passed; the house remained silent. The street seemed quieter than usual, as if everybody knew that Darlene Hardison had gone missing and, worse, that they had hidden themselves to avoid caring. To drown the silence of the phone, Eddie turned up the television. Mrs. Vernon dropped by to see if his mother had shown up, and Eddie said she hadn’t. In Mrs. Vernon’s voice he waited to hear something tell him that he could spend the night with her, but that never came, only a complaint about her own full house and a promise to check in on him tomorrow.

Now, if this go on much longer, I’ma have to call protective services, Mrs. Vernon warned the next day when he visited just before the bakery closed because she hadn’t checked in the whole day.

No, Eddie whined. I can take care of myself. Plus my aunt Bethella lives across town if I need her. I’ve stayed with her before, he told Mrs. Vernon, though he thought at the same time that it would be impossible to contact Bethella. He knew that his mother and his aunt hated each other, and he felt that his aunt hated him because of his mother. No, he could never ask her help again. But maybe he could go it alone. I’m almost twelve, he said.

And you think you grown. Hmm.

I am the man of the house, he said, shoving his hands into his pockets, trying to sound logical and wear a serious, old expression.

I suppose you right about that, sir, Mrs. Vernon said soberly, forcing him, as rapidly as someone dropped into cold water feels a chill, to remember what made that a bad thing. He scuttled out of the store before she could see the shame take over his face or hear him cry.



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