Authors: James Hannaham
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For Kara and Clarinda
The worm don’t see nothing pretty in the robin’s song.
fter escaping from the farm, Eddie drove through the night. Sometimes he thought he could feel his phantom fingers brushing against his thighs, but above the wrists he now had nothing. Dark stains covered the terry cloth wrapped around the ends of his wrists; his mother had stanched the bleeding with rubber cables. For the first hour or so, the divot-riddled road jostled the car, increasing the young man’s agony, and he clenched his teeth through the sickening pain. Steering the vehicle with his forearms stuck in two of the wheel’s holes, Eddie couldn’t keep the Subaru from wobbling and swerving, and he feared the police would notice, pull him over to find that he had no license, and arrest him for stealing the car.
When he came to smooth asphalt, he turned right for no good reason, and after a few miles he saw a sign that proved what he and his mother had believed all along. Louisiana, he breathed. Almost six years in that place. To finally see evidence of his whereabouts momentarily eased his mind, but he had to keep going. He had only a faint memory of where the farm ended, and he couldn’t tell if he’d driven himself closer to the center, where someone might capture or kill him, or away toward freedom.
The gas-pump symbol on the dash turned red around the time he saw signs for Ruston. The owner of the Subaru had left his wallet by the gearshift, and Eddie found $184 in it, which to his seventeen-year-old mind meant he could pay for gas to almost anywhere.
First he went to Houston to look for Mrs. Vernon, but to his surprise, the windows and doors of her bakery had wooden boards nailed over them. That such a responsible woman had either failed or fled implied nothing good about the fate of the neighborhood these past six years. The only other safe place he could think to go was his aunt Bethella’s house. He slithered into an oversize sweatshirt to hide his injuries from her, but when he got to the door, he could tell that someone else lived at her address—all the patio furniture had changed, toys lay jumbled on the cushions, and a wooden sign next to the mailbox said
. Since it was too early to knock, he left, but at the curb he spoke with a neighbor who remembered her. She told him Bethella lived in St. Cloud, Minnesota. His aunt had told him that she might move, but not that she had gone so far. Hadn’t she said that she would call with the address? Was that before the phone got cut off?
In the abstract, Eddie knew that Minnesota was far away, but he couldn’t fathom the distance. The name St. Cloud sounded to him like heaven. His confusion only rose when a sleepy Texan trucker in a Stetson made getting there sound easy. You take 45 North till you hit 35, the dude said. Then just keep on 35. That there’s the ramp to 45 just yonder.
To save money, Eddie stopped only at Tiger Marts or On the Gos to get gas and snacks and use the john. If he saw a police car in the lot, he kept going. If a truck-stop bathroom needed a key, he’d go someplace else. After he got his zipper down the first time, he couldn’t pull it up. He thought of sleeping, but whenever he pulled into the corner of a parking lot and lay down in the backseat, fiery twinges of pain snaked up his arms into his neck. When he asked for help squeezing the gas pump, strangers would knit their eyebrows together, shocked eyes asking,
This kid can drive without hands?
He’d say nothing but bristle and think,
I got here, didn’t I?
On the third morning, feeling safer after reaching Minnesota, the pain now a dull throb, he sat nursing a Coke in a diner off I-94, the Hungry Haven, a cozy place decorated in beauty board, with citrus remnants cooked onto the silverware. In the smoking section, a lone waitress sat facing away from the counter, her body slack as any customer’s. An urgent story resounded on the TV behind her. Some rock star in Seattle had shot himself dead. She stared at the highway as if it were God. It took Eddie a while to get her attention, but once he did, she snapped to and hopped over, spine straight, pen behind her ear.
Do you mind, miss? Can’t light it myself, he said, his request muffled by the cigarette he’d wrangled from its box and picked up with his mouth. He grinned and raised his elbows, meeting the woman’s eyes with his own.
Oh! Of course, right, she said, her wide eyes failing to mask her surprise. She struck a match and he inhaled the fire through the cigarette. Gonna be a nice day, she announced, like something profound. Let me know if you need anything else.
Her name tag said
pinned onto a dingy pink dress with a gray apron wrapped around it. Under her nasal tone something cared so strongly that Eddie moved sideways down the bench a little, crablike, to avoid the power of her interest, fearing that she might get to know him against his will. Sandy turned away.
Actually, I’m looking for work, Eddie blurted out to her back. He wasn’t looking yet, really, but suddenly he needed her kindness, superficial or not, craved it beyond his ability to stay distant. Near here, he went on. He didn’t think Bethella would let him sponge for long. If at all. She might not even care that he’d lost his hands—she’d probably blame his mother.
Sandy turned and the glow left her face. Hmm, she said. What kind?
Of work can I do? You’d be surprised. Fixing stuff. Computers. I also do carpentry, wiring, odd jobs.
Doubt spread across her face, and Eddie thought he could almost read her mind:
Now how can this boy do that in his condition?
He sat up. I can do just about anything I set my mind to, he said, pouring brightness over her hesitation. God makes three requests of His children: Do the best you can, where you at, with what you got now.
That’s beautiful, Sandy said. I bet your mama told you that.
Eddie smiled because he knew his mother would never have said such a thing—he’d picked up the saying from Mrs. Vernon—but then it occurred to him that Sandy would think the smile meant
Yes, Mama sure did.
Confirming that her fantasy of his life was the truth would make her more likely to help. After a brief chat, he told her his full name and she wrote it down on a wet napkin. He figured he’d never hear from her again.
It took Eddie a day and a half to find Bethella. He asked one of the few black pedestrians where he could find a beauty shop, adding that he meant to find his aunt. The pedestrian asked his aunt’s name, which she didn’t recognize, and then recommended he try Marquita’s Beauty Palace on St. Germain. To get there, Eddie had to drive across the Mississippi River—he read the sign aloud as he crossed. It astounded him to think that this was the same river as the one near his hometown, Ovis, Louisiana, and that it flowed as far as he had just driven. Seeing the same river here helped him adjust. The Great River wasn’t wide or grand in Minnesota, but it didn’t fill him with the same panic as it had back home—it had less to do with death. The past didn’t slither through this shallower water; he didn’t imagine any drowned ghosts staring up from the riverbed or bobbing out of culverts, their googly eyes asking
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
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
because it was easier to answer than
A few days ago, he said.
Bethella said, Lord have mercy, almost whispering, her lids narrowed, jaw low. Lord have mercy.