The Vanishing Half: A Novel (6 page)

BOOK: The Vanishing Half: A Novel
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“What on earth you doin here?” she said. Mallard was the last place she would ever have imagined seeing him again.

“I’m just in town for a spell,” he said. “Got a little business to tend to.”

“What type of business?”

“You know. This and that.”

He smiled again, but there was something unsettling about it. He glanced down at her left hand.

“So which one is your husband?” he said, nodding toward the roomful of men.

She’d forgotten that she was still wearing her wedding ring and curled her hand closed.

“He ain’t here right now,” she said.

“And he fine with you sittin up in a place like this all alone?”

“I can handle myself,” she said.

“I bet.”

“I wanted to visit my mama, that’s all. He couldn’t make the trip.”

“Well, he a brave man. Lettin you out his sight.”

He was only flirting, she knew, for old time’s sake, but she still felt her skin flush. She fiddled absently with her blue scarf.

“What about you?” she said. “I don’t see no ring on your hand.”

“You won’t,” he said. “Don’t have the taste for none of that.”

“And your woman don’t mind?”

“Who said I got a woman?”

“Maybe more than one,” she said. “I don’t know what you been up to.”

He laughed, tilting back the rest of his drink. She hadn’t flirted with a strange man in years, although Sam often accused her of it. She was making eyes with the elevator operator, she was smiling too
friendly at the doorman, she laughed too hard at that taxi driver’s jokes. In public, he seemed flattered when other men noticed her. In private, he punished her for their attention. And what would Sam say now, finding her in a place like this, Early standing so close she could reach out and touch the buttons down his shirt?

“So when you headin back home?” he said.

“I don’t know.”

“You ain’t got a return ticket or nothin?”

“You sure askin a lot of questions,” she said. “And you still ain’t told me what you do yet.”

“I hunt,” he said.

“Hunt what?” she said.

He paused a long moment, staring down at her, and she felt his hand along the back of her neck. Tender, almost, the way you might soothe a crying child. It was so surprising, so different from his brusque flirting, that she didn’t know what to say. Then he tugged her scarf loose. It was beginning to fade, but still, even in the dim bar, he could see the bruise splotched across her neck.

Nobody had warned her of this as a girl, when they carried on over her beautiful light complexion. How easily her skin would wear the mark of an angry man.

Early was frowning and she felt as exposed as if he’d lifted up her skirt. She shoved him and he stumbled backward, surprised. Then she desperately wrapped her scarf around her neck before pushing her way out the door.


M
ALLARD BENT
.

A place was not solid, Early had learned that already. A town was jelly, forever molding around your memories. The morning after
Desiree Vignes shoved him in a bar, Early lay in bed at the boardinghouse, studying the photograph Ceel had given him. He’d stayed at the Surly Goat longer than he’d planned, but then again, he hadn’t planned to run into Desiree at all. He’d only wanted to kill time, maybe ask around a little. For two days, he’d poked around New Orleans, even though he knew Desiree wouldn’t be there.

“She’s back there, I know it,” her husband had told him over the phone. “That’s where all her friends are. Where else would she go? Sister gone. She and her mama don’t talk.”

Early clutched the phone, working his bare toe over the wood.

“Where her sister gone off to?” he said.

“Shit, I don’t know. Look, I wired you the first payment. You gonna find her or what?”

This was why Early stuck to hunting criminals: it was never personal between the criminal and the bondsman, only a simple disagreement over dollars and cents. But a man searching for his wife was different. Desperate. He’d almost felt Sam Winston pacing behind him. Maybe Desiree would return to her husband on her own. If Early had a dime for every time a woman had stormed out on him. But Sam was convinced she’d left for good.

“She just lit out,” he said. “Packed a bag and took my kid too, man. Just lit out in the middle of the night. What I’m supposed to do about that?”

“Why you think she run off like that?” Early said.

“I don’t know,” Sam said. “We had a disagreement, but you know how married folks are.”

Early didn’t, but he didn’t say this. He didn’t want Sam to know anything about him. So he didn’t tell Sam when he’d decided to head to Mallard instead. A hurt bird always returns to its nest, a hurting woman no different. She would go home, he felt sure of this, even
though he knew nothing about her life. On the I-10, he kept fiddling with the photos that Ceel had given him. Studying them for clues, he told himself, although he knew he was just admiring her. A pretty girl flirting with him on her porch now a beautiful woman, smiling, kneeling in front of a Christmas tree, surrounded by glimmering lights. She looked happy. Not like the type who might pick up and run. So what had driven her to? Well, no use in wondering. None of his concern, either way. He’d find her, take a couple pictures as proof. The photos in the mail, his money on its way, and his business with Desiree Vignes would be through.

He hadn’t expected to find her so quickly in a bar filled with refinery men. He certainly hadn’t expected that bruise on her neck. When he’d pulled her scarf, he hadn’t meant to offend her—he was just surprised, that’s all. But she’d recoiled as if he’d been the one to grab her throat, then shoved him so hard, he backed into the man behind him and spilled his drink. He should’ve followed after her, but he was shocked and a little embarrassed, to tell the truth, all the other men whooping and laughing.

“What she do that for?” the old barmaid asked.

“I don’t know.” Early reached for a napkin, wiping down his jacket. “I ain’t seen her in years.”

“Y’all used to go together?” a thin man in a Stetson asked.

“Used to!” An old man laughed, clapping Early on the back. “Yeah, used to sounds right!”

“She ain’t used to be that angry,” Early said.

“Yeah, well I leave her alone if I was you,” the Stetson man said. “That whole family got problems.”

“What kind of problems?”

“You know her sister run off, get to thinkin she white now.”

“Oh yeah,” the old man said. “Out there livin real fine like a white lady.”

“Then Desiree got that child of hers.”

“What’s the matter with the child?” Early asked.

“Nothin the matter,” the Stetson man said slowly. “She just black as can be. Desiree went out and married the darkest boy she could find and think nobody round here knows he be puttin his hands on her.”

“Come back to town with a big ol’ bruise.” The old man laughed. “Guess he be trainin her. He turn her into Joe Frazier, that’s why she come after you!”

Early didn’t believe in beating on women—a man ought to fight fair, and until he met a woman who could match him blow for blow, he’d settle his disputes with them otherwise. At the same time, a job was a job. He wasn’t her minister or even her friend. He’d never really known her at all. Just a girl flirting with him on her porch. What happened between her and her husband was none of his business.

In the morning, he gave a boy a nickel to point him to Adele Vignes’s house. He trampled over thick tree roots, slowly remembering the way, the camera bag bouncing at his side. Already, he felt seventeen again, wandering heartsick through these woods. How disgusted Adele Vignes looked, pointing him down the path. Desiree silent beside her, unable to even look at him. He’d stumbled home, humiliated, but when he told his uncle, the man only laughed.

“What you expect, boy?” he said. “Don’t you know what you is around here? You a nigger’s nigger.”

He never spoke to Desiree after that. What was he supposed to say? A place, solid or not, had rules. Early mostly felt foolish for thinking that Desiree would ever ignore them for him.

Now he waited, hidden behind trees, focusing on the white house through his lens. Ten minutes, maybe, although he lost track of time, listening to swallows swoop overhead. Finally, Desiree stepped onto the front porch and lit a cigarette. Yesterday she’d startled him in the dark bar. He’d barely registered the reality of her. In the daylight, she
reminded him of the girl he’d once met. Willowy, her dark tangled hair hanging down her back. She was pacing barefoot, brimming with a nervous energy that seemed to glow through her body to the tip of her cigarette. He finally raised the camera and snapped. Desiree reaching the end of the porch—
click
—then turning on her heels—another
click
. Once he started, he couldn’t stop watching her through the tiny rectangle, how her blue dress shifted as she walked, drawing his eyes to her slender ankles. Then the screen door opened and a jet-black girl stepped onto the porch. Desiree turned, smiling, stooping to sweep the girl into her arms. Early lowered the camera, watching Desiree carry her daughter inside the house.

“What’s the news?” Sam said when he called that evening. “You found her?”

Early leaned against the closet, imagining Desiree on the porch, holding her daughter. When he’d pulled down her scarf, she’d reached for the bruise, her fingers trailing along her skin as if she were adjusting a necklace. He’d wanted to touch it too.

“I need a little more time,” he said.

Three

Leaving Mallard was Desiree’s idea but staying in New Orleans was Stella’s, and for years, Desiree would puzzle over why. When the twins first arrived in the city, they found work together in the mangle room at Dixie Laundry, folding sheets and pillowcases for two dollars a day. At first, the smell of clean laundry reminded Desiree so much of home, she nearly cried. The rest of the city was filthy—urine-splattered cobblestone, garbage cans overflowing onto streets, and even the drinking water tasting metallic. It was the Mississippi River, Mae, their shift supervisor, said. Who knew what they dumped in there? She was born and raised in Kenner, not far out of the city, so she was amused to witness the twins’ disorienting welcome. When they’d appeared at Dixie Laundry one morning—breathless and late after the annoyed streetcar driver left them fumbling for change on the curb—Mae pitied those poor country girls. She hired them on the spot, even though they were underage.

“Your tail, not mine,” she said. When the inspectors came, always by surprise, she rang the lunch bell four times and the other laundry girls laughed as the twins darted into the bathroom until the inspection was over. Later, when she remembered Dixie Laundry, Desiree
only pictured herself balancing on the toilet lid, pressed hard against Stella’s back. She hated working like this, always looking over her shoulder, but what else could she do?

“I don’t care how many toilets I got to jump in,” she said. “I ain’t goin back to Mallard.”

She was willful enough to make declarations like this. In truth, she wasn’t so sure. She still felt guilty about leaving their mother. Stella told Desiree that she couldn’t be mad at them forever—when they found better jobs, they’d start sending money home and Mama would see that leaving was the kindest thing they could have done. For a moment, the thought assuaged her guilt, and Desiree felt so relieved, she didn’t even find it strange that the Stella she’d dragged to New Orleans seemed intent on staying. Had Stella begun to change already? No, that came later. Back then, in the beginning anyway, she was the same Stella she had always been. Fastidious at work, stacking crisp pillowcases quietly, while Desiree always drifted toward the gossiping girls planning nights out. Stella tracking each penny they both earned, Stella sleeping beside her, still occasionally caught in nightmares until Desiree gently nudged her awake.

As the weeks turned into months, their sudden jaunt into the city began to feel more permanent. The thought was thrilling and terrifying. They could do this foolish thing. And if so, then what? What could they not do?

“The first year is the hardest,” Farrah Thibodeaux told them. “You do a year, you can make it.”

For the first month, the twins slept on a pile of blankets on Farrah’s floor. They’d looked her up in the phone book when they arrived in the city, bleary-eyed and bedraggled and hungry. Farrah leaned against the doorway, laughing at the sight of them. She laughed at them often, like when they gawked at burlesque dancers posing in club windows or jolted away from drunk bums lurching down the
sidewalk, or seemed every bit like two country girls who’d never been anywhere.

“These are my twins,” she always said, introducing them to her friends, and Desiree only felt embarrassed. Her own awkwardness multiplied by her sister’s. Farrah waited tables at a little jazz club called the Grace Note. On nights she closed, she snuck the twins in through the alley and smuggled them food from the kitchen. Her Dominican boyfriend played the saxophone and wore a shiny silver shirt unbuttoned to his navel; in between songs, he hung over the stage, asking the twins what they wanted to hear. Then the twins spent the night on the dance floor, giddy, twirled by big-eared boys. They started to befriend the regulars: a shoeshine boy who danced with Desiree until her feet ached; a soldier who kept begging to buy Stella drinks; a bellhop at Hotel Monteleone who always let Desiree blow his whistle to hail cabs.

“I bet you’re not thinkin about Mallard now,” Farrah said one night as the twins skittered, laughing and tired, onto the backseat.

Desiree laughed. “Never,” she said.

She was good at pretending to be brave. She would never admit to Farrah that she was homesick and worried always about money. Soon Farrah would tire of the twins sprawling out on her floor, taking up time in her bathroom, eating her food, always being around, an unwanted guest doubled. Then what? Where would they be? Maybe they were just silly country girls in over their heads. Maybe Desiree was foolish to ever believe she could be more than that. Maybe they should just go back home.

“But you been talkin about comin out here forever,” Stella said. “You wanna go back already? For what? So everyone can laugh at you?”

Only later, Desiree realized that each time she’d wavered, Stella had known exactly what to say to dissuade her from returning home. But if Stella herself wanted to stay, why hadn’t she just said so? Why
hadn’t Desiree even asked? She was sixteen and self-centered, terrified that her impulsiveness would land her and her sister out on the streets.

“I shouldn’t have brought you,” she said. “I should’ve just left alone.”

Stella looked as shocked as if Desiree had struck her.

“You wouldn’t,” she said, like it had suddenly become a possibility.

“No,” Desiree said. “But I should’ve. I shouldn’t have dragged you into this.”

This was how Desiree thought of herself then: the single dynamic force in Stella’s life, a gust of wind strong enough to rip out her roots. This was the story Desiree needed to tell herself and Stella allowed her to. They both felt safe inside it.


B
Y THE END OF
Desiree Vignes’s first week back in Mallard, everyone had already heard about the shove, which by then had become a slap, punch, or even a full-out brawl. The Vignes girl dragged, kicking and screaming, out of the bar. Those not too holy to admit that they’d been at the Surly Goat that afternoon said that they’d seen her leave, of her own volition, right after she attacked a dark man. Who was he and what had he said to anger her? Some thought he might have been her husband, come to fetch her. Others argued that he was a stranger who’d gotten fresh—she was just defending herself. Desiree had always been the prideful one; of course she’d lash out when wounded, unlike Stella, who’d rather die than make a scene. At the barber shop, Percy Wilkins slowly scraped his razor against the leather strop, listening to the men debate which twin had been the prettiest. In hindsight, Stella became more exotic, all the more beautiful now that she disappeared. But Desiree’s stock rose since she’d come home. Still a firecracker, anyone could see that. At least three men joked that she could shove them around all she wanted.

“They never been right,” the barber said. “After they daddy.”

Little girls weren’t supposed to witness what the Vignes twins had seen. At the funeral, he’d glanced at the twins, searching for some sign that they had been altered. But they just looked like girls to him, the same girls he’d seen skipping with Leon around town, each tugging on one of his arms. No way those girls could have turned out halfway normal. As far as he was concerned, both were a little crazy, Desiree perhaps the nuttiest of all. Playing white to get ahead was just good sense. But marrying a dark man? Carrying his blueblack child? Desiree Vignes had courted the type of trouble that would never leave.


A
T
L
OU

S
E
GG
H
OUSE
, Desiree Vignes learned how to balance plates of scrambled eggs and bacon and toast. Grits swirled with butter, thick pancakes sopping with syrup. She learned how to navigate around tiny tables, turn a sharp corner without losing a coffee cup, memorize orders. She learned quickly because when she applied for the job, she told Lou that she’d waited tables for three years.

“Three years, you say?” he asked on her first morning, when she struggled to take down an order.

“A long while ago, but yes,” she said, smiling, “back in New Orleans.” Other times, she told him she’d waitressed in D.C. She lost track of her lies, and even though Lou noticed, he never confronted her about it. He didn’t believe in accusing ladies of lying, and besides, he knew that Desiree needed work, even if she was too proud to admit it herself. Imagine that—the founder’s great-great-great-granddaughter waiting tables, not for white folks either but right in Mallard. Whoever thought they’d live to see the day? The Decuirs had lived free for generations, then Adele married a Vignes boy; now her daughter was serving coffee to refinery men and bringing pecan pie to farm boys. Once you mixed with common blood, you were common forever.

“She not much of a waitress,” Lou told the line cook. “But she don’t hurt much.”

If he were honest, he’d admit that hiring Desiree had, in fact, boosted business. Old schoolmates, seized by curiosity, sat at the counter sipping coffee they ordinarily may have gone without. Even those too young to remember her, teenagers now, crowded in the back booths, whispering behind her back with the fervor of those witnessing the casual appearance of a minor celebrity. She noticed, of course she did. Still, each morning, she took a deep breath, tied her apron, fixed her face into a smile. She thought of her daughter and swallowed her humiliation. She bit her tongue even during her first week, when she’d stepped out of the kitchen to find Early Jones sitting at the counter. For a moment, she faltered, fingering her apron. She would draw more attention to herself by not serving him. Head down then, and get on with it.

He was wearing that leather jacket again, scratching at his beard as she slid over a coffee cup. A worn bag sat on an empty stool beside him. She reached over with the pot of coffee but he covered the cup with his hand.

“That fella that done that to you,” he said. “He know where your mama stay?”

Her bruise had faded to a sick yellow by then, but still, she gingerly touched it.

“No,” she said.

“She ever sent you a letter or nothin?”

“We wasn’t in touch.”

“Good.” He slid his finger inside the smooth handle of his empty cup. “What about your sister?”

“What about her?”

“When’s the last time you heard from her?”

She scoffed. “Thirteen years.”

“Well, what happened to her?” he said.

“She took a job,” she said. It all sounded so simple when she said it aloud, and of course, it had started that way. Stella needed to find a new job, so she’d responded to a listing in the newspaper for secretarial work in an office inside the Maison Blanche building. An office like that would never hire a colored girl, but they needed the money, living in the city and all, and why should the twins starve because Stella, perfectly capable of typing, became unfit as soon as anyone learned that she was colored? It wasn’t lying, she told Stella. How was it her fault if they thought she was white when they hired her? What sense did it make to correct them now?

A good job for Stella, then a good job for her, that was the plan. So Stella would have to pretend a little but a little pretending to keep them off the streets seemed worth it. Then one evening, a year later, Desiree came home from Dixie Laundry to find an empty apartment. All of Stella’s clothes, all of her things, gone. Like she’d never been there at all.

There was a note left behind in Stella’s careful hand:
Sorry, honey, but I’ve got to go my own way.
For weeks, Desiree carried it with her until one night, in a fit of fury, she ripped it up, scattered it outside the window. She regretted that now, wished she still had something as small as a scrap of paper with Stella’s handwriting on it.

Early was quiet a moment, then he finally pushed his empty cup toward her.

“What if I help you find her?” he said.

She frowned, pouring the coffee slowly.

“What you mean?” she said.

“Got a new job out in Texas, then I’m headin back this way,” he said. “We could drive into New Orleans. Ask around.”

“Why you wanna help me anyway?” she said.

“Cause I’m good at it,” he said.

“Good at what?”

He slid a worn manila envelope onto the countertop. It was addressed to a man named Ceel Lewis, but she recognized Sam’s handwriting.

“Huntin,” he said.


I
N A LITTLE TOWN
outside Abilene, Texas, Early dreamed about Desiree Vignes.

Beneath the setting sun, he sprawled along the backseat of his El Camino, cradling a photograph of her. He’d given all of Ceel’s pictures back to her except for one, which he’d already slid into the inside pocket of his leather jacket, feeling its corners poke his chest. He wasn’t sure why he kept that picture. Wanted something to remember her by, maybe, if she decided to never speak to him again. She’d looked so shaken when she learned his true purpose in finding her, which he couldn’t blame; he didn’t stick around to find out if she could forgive him. Off to Texas, where he was hunting a mechanic charged with assault and attempted murder—his wife, her lover, a torque wrench. The blood-splattered garage made the front page in the
Times-Picayune
. On his drive west, Early imagined the mechanic swinging that wrench like Samson hurling a donkey jaw, blinded by his own righteousness and betrayal. Once, he might have been excited to hunt a man accused of such a sensational crime. But he was distracted now; when he closed his eyes, he imagined only Desiree.

At the truck stop, he bought a Coke and stepped into the phone booth to tell Sam Winston that his wife wasn’t in New Orleans.

“Probably lit out east,” he said. “New York, New Jersey, somethin like that.”

“Why on earth she go out there, man?” Sam said. “No, I’m telling you, she’s back in New Orleans. You just ain’t looked hard enough.”

“Ask Ceel how hard I look. If she was here, I woulda found her already.”

“What if I send you more money?”

“Then I tell you the same thing,” Early said. “She ain’t here. Try someplace else.”

He hung up the phone, leaning against the booth. His mind started to unspool backward; he knew how to find a hiding man but how to hide a woman so that she would never be found? Plant misinformation, scatter the trail so that any other man Sam hired wouldn’t even know where to start. He fished in his pockets for a cigarette, his hands trembling. He’d never walked away from a job before. Exposed his camera film under the sunlight, the photographs of Desiree on her porch blackening. Money disappearing from his pockets. When he told Ceel that he’d come up empty and needed another job, quick, Ceel just shrugged, handing him the mechanic’s photograph.

BOOK: The Vanishing Half: A Novel
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