At 9:30 that night, shortly after the time Darlene would normally leave, he turned off the lights and appliances, slipped out the front door, and locked it behind him. He walked downstairs into the parking lot of the complex, concerned that someone would see him and figure out what had happened or judge Darlene a bad mother for letting him stay out late. Car headlights suddenly shone on him, so dazzling he couldn’t see the vehicle behind them. The beams seemed to expose his aloneness and helplessness, sensations he couldn’t release even after scampering to the sidewalk and making his way to the strip.
He had been driven down parts of the long commercial avenue many times, sometimes when the school bus took a wrong turn or a detour, but rarely at night. Seeing it in this new way filled him with dread. A few sections, mainly the strip malls nearer the highway, supported restaurants and movie theaters. There were no sidewalks. In Texas, having a vehicle meant having a life—if you walked on the shoulder, everybody could see that you’d failed in some way. That you couldn’t afford a vehicle, that your car had broken down and you couldn’t pay for a cab, that you had no friends to call. Maybe you were too weird to hitchhike. Out by the curb, shaggy people with walking sticks and shopping carts guided mangy animals to nowhere. Teens who’d blackened their eye sockets and pierced the bridges of their noses shuffled toward Houston’s underworld. A decaying but popular bowling alley sat across from a lot that contained Mexican and Chinese chain restaurants, and farther down you could find one of those tremendous, shiny supermarkets that stayed open all night just because it could, its clientele growing sparser and freakier as the evening progressed. Whole sections of the road closed after business hours—a cluster of stores that sold antiques, ceramic tiles, and Christian books and supplies lay dormant in shadows, and farther on, beyond a bright gas station, stretched another chunk of avenue where several strip malls had failed and their gigantic unlit parking lots seemed to undulate like wide, deep rivers do at night.
At the corner, near the edge of an empty department-store parking lot, a woman waited at a bus shelter. She leaned against the light box, silhouetted, peering into whichever cars stopped at the traffic signal. This didn’t seem strange to Eddie until it occurred to him that the buses must have stopped running. Initially he judged the woman unfortunate, then ignorant and badly dressed, but as he figured out what she was doing, he saw her ingenuity. She had an excuse, if a lame one, to lurk in this territory. Suddenly he thought of his mother—first he had to rule out the possibility that the woman was her, then reconcile himself to the idea that his mother was no different, which he could not do. But he felt this woman might know his mother, or her whereabouts.
He passed, pretending not to notice her. After walking fifty more yards, he stopped and returned to the bus shelter. He stood away from her, watching her light a cigarette and toss the lit match casually into the street. The woman squinted at him, took a drag, and blew her smoke. The expression she sent his way—brows close together, mouth pursed—made him feel that he had offended her.
No, sugar, she said. Ain’t happening. She leaned out of the shelter and craned her neck in the opposite direction. Mm-mm. You too young.
I’m not that young, he announced. I’m almost twelve.
She took a step back and guffawed, and he saw her sympathy for him break open. What is happening to me? she asked the sky. I can’t believe I thought—she shook her head and sucked on the cigarette again. Good God A’mighty. Eleven years old. And what you doing out—
I’m looking for my mother, he blurted.
The gravity of the matter seemed to settle in her body, as if the same thing had once happened to her. Oh, it’s like that, she said. She on the street, hmm?
I reckon. I’m not sure where she is, ma’am.
The name Darlene Hardison did not sound familiar to the woman. Out here, she said, a lot of people—the names aren’t the names, you know. What she look like?
Like a normal mom.
You gotta do better than that, my dear. How tall, how fat, how black. Big boobs, small boobs, big ass—what her hair like? Natural, straight, weave, dye? Scars, tattoos. What she was wearing. Who she was with.
Nothing helpful came to mind. Vague adjectives orbited his head. Pretty. Nice. If he didn’t find her that night, he would need a picture. He struggled to create an image of his mother with his undeveloped tools, and watched his failure reflected in the woman’s blank expression. He could not handle this alone, but he didn’t let that thought enter his awareness. He had to hold back a riot in his chest that made him want to shout, or kick the bus shelter, or himself.
A gleaming white town car slowed at the bus stop. The woman broke Eddie’s gaze, flicked her unfinished cigarette to the ground, smashed it into the pavement, and leaned her torso into the window of the car. Loud rap music from inside drowned out their conversation. A voice whined, Don’t believe the hype! Presently the woman turned back and smiled. This my ride. She swung the door wide, leapt in, and slammed it. In Eddie’s imagination she became his mother, who might have done the same things, recklessly stepping over the line into danger, into oblivion, and—worse than wrapping herself in a stranger’s murderous arms, worse than dying—leaving him behind.
Only then did a vivid picture of his mother come to him. Slim, her edges round like a soap sculpture in the rain, fuller hips than her frame seemed able to support. She straightened her hair and kept it at shoulder length. She wore sleeveless floral sundresses in muted patterns and flat shoes—in particular he remembered a mustard-colored pair. At the old house, in Ovis, she would garden from October to May, when it wasn’t too hot to spend time in the yard, and she dreamed of getting a sprinkler system for the lawn. He remembered eating a certain brand of chocolate sandwich cookie that matched her complexion, not the deep brown of stained wood but lighter and ruddier, like cedar-bark chips. She had grace, and painted her finger-and toenails a respectable shade of plum. A night sky of faint dots spread across her face, maybe from an adolescent ’bout with acne. He remembered sitting in her lap and tracing these constellations while she slapped his hands away. The makeup she used always compensated for the spots. These were some of Eddie’s earliest memories, which always gradually gave way to something else, as if Darlene had pulled a zipper and the halves of her body had fallen away, like a husk, to unmask another person.
This mental image lasted only as long as the flashing red sign that told him not to walk. Hazier still was the gap between that image and the woman he couldn’t find that night. Eddie’s father had also disappeared, nearly six years earlier, and they’d found him dead. During the Vietnam War, he knew, his father had flown an airplane, and after that, in college, he had played basketball. Eddie’s father must have done his job as a soldier well because he wore a medal in the shape of a silver star over his heart in that photograph near his mother’s bed. That’s for bravery, his mother had said, so often that he could say it with her. Charlie didn’t get your daddy, no sir. He had to come home to Jim Crow for that. Then she’d laugh, but not a funny laugh.
Eddie did a lot of asking that night. He encountered many peculiar people, etched in fluorescent light outside ratty convenience stores, walking across empty parking lots whose fault lines sprouted crabgrass and sparkled with nuggets of safety glass, peeking from inside dark concrete motel rooms with broken doors. Nobody remembered Darlene; some people did not know if they remembered remembering. Others forgot that they did not remember. Some spoke fast, for a very long time, and did not stop. Some people could not form words.
One skinny lady with sunken eyes claimed that she definitely had seen Darlene. Without question, she said, absolutely, on this very road. But she also insisted that it had happened ten years ago. We shared a slice of pizza, she went on, because we only had enough money for one, and your moms wanted olives on it, I member that clearly, and we had a little argument about that because I hate olives.