Authors: Brit Bennett
She ran in a pair of gold running shoes she’d begged Early for one Christmas. Her mother had sighed.
“Wouldn’t you like a nice dress?” she asked. “Or new earrings?” Each year, she shoved the box across the rug as if she could barely stand to touch it. “Gym shoes again,” she said glumly, as Jude pulled out the tissue paper. “I swear I’ll never understand how one girl could want so many pairs of gym shoes.”
When she was eleven, Early had bought her first pair of running shoes, white New Balance sneakers he’d found in Chicago. The next year, he was off working a job in Kansas, so he didn’t come for Christmas at all, then the next, he was back as if he’d never left, bearing a new pair, and by then she’d long gotten used to his coming and going, which felt as regular as the seasons.
“That man sniffin around again,” her grandmother always said. She never called Early by his name—always “that man” or sometimes just “him.” She didn’t approve of her daughter shacking up with a man, even though Early was never around long enough for his visits
to constitute shacking up, which either made it better or worse. Still, each Early season, as Jude began to think of it, her mother started to change. First, the house transformed, her mother balancing on chairs, ripping down the curtains, beating dust out of the rugs, washing the windows. Then her clothes: her mother springing for a new pair of nylons, finishing the dress she’d started sewing months ago, shining her shoes until they gleamed. The final, and most embarrassing part: her mother preening in the mirror like a vain schoolgirl, flipping her long hair onto one shoulder, then the other, trying a new shampoo that smelled like strawberries. Early loved her hair, so she always paid it special attention. Once, Jude had seen him ease up behind her mother and bury his face in a handful of her hair. She didn’t know who she wanted to be in that moment—Early or her mother, beautiful or beholding—and she’d felt so sick with longing that she turned away.
Her mother never acknowledged the beginning of an Early season, but Maman knew. This, too, was a feature of Early season: she and her grandmother, tentative allies, forging clearer allegiance.
“All those men,” Maman said, “all those men around town and she’s still out here chasin after him.”
In her grandmother’s bedroom, Jude maneuvered around the bed, reaching for the bottle of eye drops Dr. Brenner prescribed after her grandmother complained about dryness. Each night before bed, her grandmother rested her head in Jude’s lap, her graying hair spread out like a fan, while Jude carefully placed a drop in each eye.
“You should have seen,” her grandmother said. “All the boys who loved them.”
She still did this sometimes, talked about Jude’s mother as
. Jude never corrected her. She slowly released the drop, her grandmother blinking up at her.
waved at her daughter’s bus from the terminal, she waited until the Greyhound disappeared around the corner to wipe the tears from her eyes. She didn’t want the last thing for her daughter to see, if she had in fact been staring out the back window, to be her silly mother, crying as if she’d never see her again. Early handed her a handkerchief and she laughed, dabbing her eyes. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” she said, although nobody had asked and she wasn’t. After he dropped her by Lou’s Egg House for her shift, she realized, tying her apron, that she was starting her day the same way she’d started it for the past ten years, except that this time, she did not know when she would see her daughter again.
Ten years. She had been home ten years. Sometimes she glanced around the house, shaking her head, as if she still didn’t understand how she’d found herself back. As if she were in
The Wizard of Oz
, but instead of a house dropping on her, she’d fallen through the roof and awakened, years later, dazed to realize that she was still there. When she’d first decided to stay, she gave herself practical reasons. She didn’t earn enough at Lou’s to live anywhere else. She couldn’t abandon her mother again. She still hoped that Stella might return home on her own. And even if Stella didn’t, Desiree felt closer to her here, wandering around Stella’s old things. The chair where Stella sat at the table, a cornhusk doll Stella named Jane. Everywhere around the house, a door handle or blanket or couch cushion that Stella had once touched, bearing the invisible remnants of her fingerprints.
She’d made a sort of life for herself here, hadn’t she? With her mother and her daughter and Early Jones, who left and continued to leave but also continued to return. When he visited, Desiree felt like a girl again, the years falling away like meat off the bone. His arrivals
always seemed a little miraculous. Once, she was carrying a country-fried steak and eggs to a table and found Early sitting at the end of the counter, chewing on a toothpick. Another time, she locked up the diner and turned to see Early leaning against the phone booth across the road. She was exhausted but still laughed at the sight of him, as unexpected as the sudden coming of spring. One day there was frost, and the next, bloom.
“I was just thinkin about you,” he’d say, as if he had stopped by on his way home, not driven all the way from Charleston, pressing on through the night, bleary-eyed, to get to her sooner. “Wonderin what you was up to.”
She was never up to anything, of course, her days blending together into a sameness that she later found comforting. No surprises, no sudden anger, no man holding her one moment, then hitting her the next. Now life was steady. She knew what each day would bring, except when Early appeared. He was the only thing in her life she wasn’t prepared for. He never stayed longer than a day or two before he was gone again. Once, he’d convinced her to call in sick to Lou’s so that he could take her fishing. They didn’t catch anything but halfway through the afternoon, he kissed her, slipping his fingers under her dress, stroking her as they floated on the glassy lake. It was the most thrilling thing that had happened to her in months.
When Early came to town, her mother grew grim and tightlipped, glaring at the door when Desiree slipped out to meet him at the boardinghouse.
“I don’t know why you foolin around with that man,” she said. “Can’t stick around, find no decent work.”
“He works,” Desiree said.
“Nothin decent!” her mother said. “Probably got all type of women out there runnin after him—”
“Well, that’s his business, not mine.”
She didn’t ask who Early spent his nights with outside of Mallard. He didn’t ask her either. Each time he left, she missed him, but she wondered if his leaving was the only reason why they worked. He wasn’t a settling man, and maybe she wasn’t a settling woman either. When she thought about marriage, she felt trapped with Sam in an airless apartment, bracing herself, through each calm moment, for his inevitable rage. But Early was easy. He had no hidden sides. They didn’t argue, and if she ever grew annoyed with him, she was comforted by the fact that soon enough he would be gone again. He couldn’t trap her because he refused to trap himself. She’d had to convince him to stay at the house when he visited.
“Aw, I don’t know, Desiree,” he’d said, rubbing his jaw slowly.
“I’m not askin for a ring,” she said. “I’m not really askin for anything. It just don’t make sense, me runnin out to the boardinghouse all the time. And I think with Jude, it would be better if—” But she paused here. She never wanted Early to think that she expected him to be a father to her daughter. He didn’t owe the two of them anything. Owing was never part of their arrangement.
“What about your mama?” he said.
“Don’t worry about her. I’ll take care of all that. I just think . . . well, it don’t make sense, that’s all. We two grown people. I’m tired of sneakin around.”
“Well, all right,” he said.
The next time he came to town, he met her at her mother’s house. He stood on the porch, carefully unlacing his dirty boots, and moved inside the house as if it were a fancy store and he was afraid he’d break something. He’d brought, ridiculously, flowers for the table and she filled a vase with water, feeling like they were playing a married couple, Early carrying on like a television husband,
honey-I’m-home-ing her from the doorway. He’d also brought gifts from his travels: a new purse for her, a bottle of perfume her mother refused to thank him for, and a book for Jude. She had explained to her daughter that Early would come to stay with them.
“All the time?” Jude asked.
“No, not all the time,” Desiree said. “Just sometimes. When he’s in town.”
Her daughter paused, then said, “Well, maybe he shouldn’t come here. Maybe we should go with him.”
“We can’t, baby. He don’t even have a real house. That’s why we gotta stay here. But he’ll come visit and bring you nice things. Wouldn’t you like that?”
She knew better, of course. Her daughter only wanted to leave. She’d wanted to leave Mallard since they’d arrived and Desiree, ashamed, kept promising that they would. She couldn’t promise Jude that the other children would be kind or eat lunch with her or invite her over to play, so when another birthday party arrived without Jude receiving an invitation, Desiree told her daughter that none of this would matter once they’d left town. Leaving was the only thing she could offer. But, she thought, watching Early and Jude read together on the carpet, maybe staying wasn’t the worst thing for Jude. She had family here, at least. She was loved. At night, Desiree held her daughter and told her stories about her own childhood. At first she said, I have a sister named Stella, then, you have an aunt, then, once upon a time, a girl named Stella lived here.
, Early tracked Stella Vignes until she was no longer Stella Vignes.
She’d been Stella Vignes in New Orleans and Boston, then the trail ran cold—she’d married, he figured, but he couldn’t find a marriage
license for a Stella Vignes in any place he knew she’d been. So she’d married someplace else. She was still, he assumed, Stella. A new first name was too difficult to get used to. Only a professional con man could assume a completely new identity and Stella was nobody’s professional. Why worry about carefulness if you didn’t expect anyone to come looking for you? She’d been sloppy enough that he found her apartment in Boston.
“Oh, she was real nice,” the landlady said when he called. “Quiet. Worked somewhere downtown. A department store, maybe. Then upped and left. But she was real nice. Never caused no trouble.”
He imagined Stella behind a perfume counter, spraying pink bulbs toward ladies passing by, or gift wrapping dolls during Christmas. He’d had one or two dreams where he was chasing her through a Sears and Roebuck, Stella ducking behind dress carousels and shoe racks.
“She have a boyfriend?” he asked.
The landlady grew silent after that, then said she had to go. A colored man asking after a white woman—she’d already said too much. But not enough for Early, who hadn’t even found a forwarding address. Stella sprinkled breadcrumbs, which was almost worse than nothing. Almost, because he didn’t want to find Stella at all.
There’d been a time in the beginning—at least, he told himself this—when he’d wanted to find her in earnest. Now, looking back, he wasn’t so sure. Maybe it had always been Desiree’s will, tugging him along. He’d wanted to please her, that was why he’d offered to hunt for Stella in the first place. He wanted to find Stella because Desiree wished her found; those wishes overlapped into a single desire, one that kept him on the trail for years. But Stella did not want to be found, and that desire seemed even stronger. Desiree pulled, then Stella pulled harder. Early, somehow, had been caught between.
Now time had fallen right out of his pockets when he wasn’t looking. One morning, he climbed out of Desiree Vignes’s bed and found
a gray hair in his beard. He spent ten minutes in front of the bathroom mirror, rooting around for others, startled, for the first time, by his own face. He was, he suspected, beginning to look more and more like his own father, which was as unsettling as transforming into a stranger. Then he felt arms around his waist, Desiree pressing against his back.
“You about done starin at yourself?” she asked.
“I found a gray hair,” he said. “Look. Right here.”
She laughed suddenly. After all those years, he still felt delighted by that laugh, stunned to be caught in its blast.
“Well, I hope you didn’t think you’d be young and cute forever,” she said, ushering him to the side so that she could brush her teeth. He leaned against the doorway, watching her. Most mornings, she opened Lou’s at four, so she was gone by the time he woke up. Then again, most mornings, he woke up someplace other than this bed. He would lie in the backseat of his car or sprawl across the stained mattress in some rundown motel, imagining Desiree’s room. The dark wooden walls, the dresser lined with photographs, the calico blue bedspread. Her childhood room, the bed she’d once shared with Stella. Early had learned to sleep on Stella’s side, and sometimes, when they made love, he felt shy, like Stella was perched on the dresser, watching.
Desiree splashed water on her face. He wanted to pull her back into bed. There was never enough of her. He could never love her the way he wanted to. Full. A full love would scare her. Each time he returned to Mallard, he thought about bringing a ring. Her mother, at least, would finally respect him; she might even begin to think of him like a son. But Desiree never wanted to marry again.
“I’ve been through all that already,” she said, with the same weariness of a soldier talking about war.
It had been a war, in a sense, one that she could never win and only hope to survive. She’d told him about all the ways Sam had hurt her:
slamming her face into the door, dragging her by her hair across the bathroom floor, backhanding her mouth, his hand streaked with lipstick and blood. She touched Early’s mouth gently, and he kissed her fingertips, trying to reconcile that quiet voice he’d heard over the phone ten years ago with the man she described. She didn’t know where Sam lived now, but Early, of course, had traced him already. He lived in Norfolk with his new wife and three boys. Exactly what the world didn’t need, three boys growing up to be spiteful men. But he’d never told Desiree this. What good would it do?