I’m already running late for work when I turn to lock my front door and I see that my terrier, Ralph, is holding his empty food saucer in his mouth, looking up at me with big brown eyes.
“Shit,” I say, remembering that I forgot to buy dog food yesterday. “C’mon,” I say to Ralph. He follows me down the stairs and we skirt the side of the house. Mama lives on the first floor of the house, and she also owns the bakery around the corner where I work. She’s always busy in the mornings, and I just know she’s already at the bakery, taking on all the responsibilities herself. An octopus in the kitchen, she somehow has enough arms and hands to make donuts, brew coffee, and shape biscuit dough at the same time.
Ralph and I hurry over to the next block, where we jog up to the bakery’s back door. I tell him to wait outside while I get the dog food for him. Mama keeps some in a little bag beside the bakery’s kitchen sink. She does this because one time when I was running really late, I’d left the back door of the bakery open and Ralph came in, somehow climbed up on the counter, and was face-first in a tray of chocolate donuts by the time I came back from the restroom.
Inside the bakery, the counter is dusted with flour. Dozens of glazed donuts lay on the cooling racks. Mama stands in front of four trays of pastry dough. She ladles an apple and sugar confection into each piece of flat dough. Afterward, she will repeat the process with the peach and sugar confection on the other counter behind her. The apple and peach turnovers are among our best-sellers.
Mama is a brown-skin Black lady with a thick mop of hair that always sits on top of her head in a bun. In the bakery, she wears a hair net, no jewelry and no nail polish. Her apron is dusted with flour and so are her hands. If you could see the way her eyes widen and brighten as she bakes, you’d think she was beautiful.
“Sorry I’m late, Mama,” I say, going over and planting a kiss on her hairnet.
This is eclipse day. People will be tailgating on the square and we want to have plenty of food to offer them. It will be a long day for us, since the solar eclipse is set for the afternoon and we plan to stay open past our regular noon closing time.
“Don’t you think we need another rack or two?” I ask.
“Other racks are already done, Lolly,” she says, gesturing with her head to the other side of the curtain. I pull the curtain aside and gasp when I see the three full rolling racks loaded down with turnovers, sausage and egg biscuits, bacon and egg biscuits, and both glazed and chocolate donuts.
I hope we can sell it all. On days when we have a few extra donuts, we stick a 2 for $1 sign on the door and people always clean us out.
“Luke says folks are planning to camp out in front of the library. We leave our front door open and let everybody get a whiff of these turnovers, and that’ll bring ‘em in!”
I smile. Mama always talks about what will bring customers in. For nearly a year, she’s considered serving lunch, but Patty’s serves lunch and dinner and draws a big crowd. Best fried fish po’ boy around. Plus, Mama likes closing at noon each day so that she has time to work on her other business: sewing and alterations. I helped her design her own website and everything. We hand out her cards at the bakery, and with prom season coming up she’s already been hired to make three gowns by the end of the month. I think Mama is the smartest woman in the world. She always finds a way to make money.
A scratching sound comes from out in the dining room. I go to the dining room doorway and see Ralph. He has one paw against the glass of the front door. When he catches my eye, he starts wagging his tail. He drags his tongue across his lips and pants. The empty food bowl sits beside him.
“Hang on,” I tell him, holding up one finger.
In the kitchen, I grab the bag of dog food and take it out to the sidewalk to fill Ralph’s dish. As he wolfs down the meal, I look around the square. It isn’t six a.m. yet, and though we open at six our business doesn’t get too heavy until six-thirty when the first shift at the auto plant stops by for their coffee and biscuits on their way to work.
I walk Ralph back to the house, fill up his water dish, and put my leftovers from last night’s dinner in a dish for him.
Back at the bakery, I tuck my braided hair into a hairnet, wash my hands, and tie on my apron. I’m starting the coffeemaker when the bell above the front door dings. I pinch myself for leaving the door unlocked. “We aren’t open just yet,” I say, turning to face the door.
It’s Jenny Broadnax. She’s our part-time employee. She doesn’t typically work on Tuesdays, but Mama probably thought we needed the help. Jenny comes straight over to me. She’s a white girl who always has loads of energy, and her bouncy ponytail matches her chipper mood. “Lolly,” she says, “Todd and I are engaged.” She pauses a moment, awaiting a response.
“Congrats,” I mumble and then remember to smile.
Jenny holds her hand out and I step closer to see the small diamond ring.
I nod. “Pretty.”
She gestures for me to sit at the table across from her.
I start to make some excuse, but then realize I can listen to Jenny brag and laugh behind her back later with my friend Deidre.
I drop my rag on the counter and sit with her.
“He asked me last night. I’m so excited,” she says. Her eyes look off into space, as though remembering. “You know, his family has forty acres out in Wilson County…”
She seems to work her boyfriend’s family history into nearly every conversation. The fact is, her boyfriend works at the same shit factory where my boyfriend works, regardless of forty acres and a mule or whatever else his family owns.
“Don’t you wish you had a ring?” she asks.
“Not really,” I say.
She leans forward and smiles.
A few customers roll in, and we have to get up to tend to them. By nine o’clock, our morning rush is over. Most customers take their goodies to go, but ever since Mama put in free wi-fi, some patrons come in with their laptops and tablets. I brew more coffee and occasionally nod at Jenny, who has come over to the counter to continue talking about her boyfriend, er, fiancé. I can’t decide if I’d rather stand around in the kitchen or if I’d rather stay here and be annoyed by Jenny. When I tune into the conversation again, she’s talking about what a good father Todd would make. She’s probably right. Todd doesn’t seem to have much going on in his life, and I could see him dropping everything to teach a kid how to fish or ride a bike.
I excuse myself from Jenny and yell into Mama’s office that I’m taking a break.
I go out to the sidewalk, holding my breath that Jenny won’t follow. As the door shuts behind me, Jenny is saying, “Hey, Miss Henri. I got a ring last night…” and I imagine her holding out her tiny diamond again.
Luke’s headed my way, and he nearly walks right past me without speaking until he sees me looking at him and gives me a half-hearted nod. Luke is the Black man who’s been seeing Mama for a few months. He played high school football, but his body type doesn’t match that of the others who played with him. The other former football players are wide-shouldered and pot-bellied. The white ones usually ride around in pickups with American flag bumper stickers. The Black ones have the pickups but don’t flaunt any stickers. Luke doesn’t fit either type. He’s long and lean, more like a basketballer than a footballer. Long bundles of veins rope their way up his sinewy arms.
He goes into the bakery and I stand for a moment on the sidewalk. The morning air feels so good on my face and neck after being in the warm restaurant.
Later, I start two pots of regular coffee and another of decaf and begin to wipe down the counters while they percolate. Luke’s laughter rolls through the kitchen.
“Did you think about what I asked you?” he says, his voice turning serious.
Mama says something in a low voice, and I move closer to the doorway.
“It don’t matter,” Luke says. “She’s gotta move out sometime. You can’t have her living with you forever.”
My heart beats a little faster. I don’t live with Mama. I live in the apartment upstairs from her place. Besides, she and I get along well. No way would she put me out. I wait for her to tell him that. She’ll be polite about it, of course, but she’ll tell him.
“You know how rough she’s had it. Ethan left her with me and hasn’t looked back.”
Luke comes back, sharp and angry, “That ain’t none of your problem, Henri,” he says, calling Mama by her nickname. “Didn’t you say she’s dead weight? She’s twenty-something years old. Let her find a job somewhere else.”
“She’s hardly been on time a single day since she started working here, and you think she can keep a real job? The girl will need a keeper her whole life.”
One of them, probably Luke, gives a frustrated sigh.
The bell above the front door rings, and I force myself to smile as I turn toward our next customer. Jenny is out in the dining area, showing off that dang ring to two older ladies. Thank god she didn’t hear Mama and Luke shit-talking me.
Struggling to block Mama’s words from my mind, I greet Amanda Southerland.
“Coffee this morning, ma’am?” I ask, taking a paper cup from the stack by the coffee machines.
The next two hours are pretty busy. I take the orders and run the register while Jenny bags and pours and runs her mouth to the customers.
Mama’s words keep coming back to me: Think she can keep a real job? Will need a keeper her whole life.
At lunchtime we have a lull in customers, and I’m washing a coffee carafe when Mama steps into the kitchen doorway with a big smile on her face and asks me if I’d be okay while she walks down to the bank to take Luke a snack. She waves a white sack toward me, and I know it’s loaded down with pastries and biscuits. I roll my eyes.
“What’s wrong?” she asks.
“I heard y’all talking this morning,” I say, my voice sounding cowardly and pitiful, not at all like I intended.
She stares at me, as if she can’t remember dissing me.
“Do you not want me living there?” I ask.
She comes farther into the kitchen and stands at the other end of the big, metal sink.
“I didn’t say I didn’t want you,” she says, putting the white sack down on the sink’s ledge.
But she still hasn’t said that she does want me.
My father, Ethan, was the king of short-term relationships. He stayed with a string of women between my middle and high school years, and then he stayed with Henrietta Longhorn, the woman I now call “mama.” Henri was smart, owned her own successful bakery, and, most importantly to adolescent me, she knew all the tricks of female-dom. She wore makeup, had her hair professionally done twice a month, and even showed me how to walk in high heels, all of which were things my real mother would never have taught me, even if she had stuck around. My mother was a factory worker who wore steel-toe boots and hairnets and always smelled of wood and tobacco, not the soft magnolia scent of Henrietta. My stern mother rarely spoke. Henrietta listened when I complained about girls at school and was so excited to hear about my first date that she flicked off the TV and hustled to the doorway as soon as the boy dropped me off.
In short, I loved Henrietta. Mama.
“Lolly,” Mama coos my name and puts a hand on my shoulder. She’s come to my end of the sink and tries to coax me in for a hug.
I resist her, thinking of the night Daddy left us. He told her he was going to Texas to work in the oil fields. He threw a bunch of clothes in a suitcase and half-zipped it, his jeans and underwear nearly falling out as he stood in the doorway. A bolt of lightning lit the sky behind his head right as he turned and looked at Mama and me. Daddy was a light-skinned Black man with hazel eyes and tobacco-stained teeth.
“Say goodbye and get in the car, Lolly,” he told me.
Going with him would mean hours on the road to Texas. Once we got there, he’d take up with some other woman, someone like my real mother, a hard-edged woman with sore feet and some exhausting job. The choice was easy. I shook my head at him. “No,” I croaked out.
He repeated his order for me to get into the car, which reminded me that I was an afterthought. He’d not given me so much as twenty minutes to fill a suitcase or to say goodbye to her. He wanted me to follow him with just the clothes on my back.
“No,” I said, more forcefully that time.
He stared at me, and then he turned and went out into the carport.
“You’ll be back,” Mama called to him as he slammed the car door. But after six years, we still haven’t seen him.
I look at her now, standing so close to me at the sink counter. I wish I could make a dramatic exit like my father. I can’t, though. I’ve not saved any of what I’ve earned at the bakery. My checking account was overdrawn again last month. Now, I have a little over a hundred dollars, just enough to buy Ralph’s food and some supplies before the next payday.
“If you can’t say you want me there, I’ll leave,” I say.
She drops her eyes to the sink, and I read sadness on her face. Or is it pity? She doesn’t speak, and so I do: “You want him? You don’t think I can live there if he moves in? Are you done with me?”
She shakes her head. “Lolly, I’m not done with you. I just think you could be doing more. When you started this job, you said it was temporary. I always thought you’d wind up doing something else. Teaching school or maybe getting a bookkeeping job or something.”
I roll my eyes. Luke works in some accounting office at the bank. For a second, I picture myself working alongside him. No way in hell.
“You don’t even like working here,” Mama says.
“Yes,” I said and then pause before claiming, “I do.”
Except I hate the early mornings. And I hate the way certain customers talk down to me.
“I’ll start looking for a place,” I tell her. She doesn’t protest, and that bothers me.
I turn my back to Mama and walk toward the lobby, and then I turn back to look at her. “You shoulda told me. I shouldn’t’ve had to hear it from Luke.”
I go back into the dining room to wipe down the tables, but they are already sparkling clean and still wet. Jenny must’ve sanitized them right before she clocked out for the day.
A minute later, Mama walks past me and out the door and moves down the street toward the bank. For a second, I want to grab her arm before she disappears, turn her around and yell at her. Mama hates confrontation. When Daddy used to get into a fussing mood, she’d cry and lock herself in their bedroom
I go out to the sidewalk to look around. People have already lined up along the railroad tracks. I look for my friend Deidre, who works down at the bank, but I don’t see her anywhere. I wish my boyfriend Mac were here, but he doesn’t get off shift until later. If I have a type, Mac would be it. Every man I’ve dated is a tall and broad-shouldered Black man who wears ball caps and has ugly hands and feet. One previous man I dated had an ugly black burn scar from his job as a fry cook, and another had a few mashed toes from a forklift accident. Mac has sweaty feet and thick toenails.
I imagine telling Mac about Jenney’s engagement.
“Is this a hint from you?” he’ll ask.
He asks me that a lot. We’ve been seeing each other nearly a year and whenever I stop to admire a ring advertised on TV or want to drive to look at a new subdivision, he asks if I’m hinting for a ring. He’d surely buy me one, too.
I go to the kitchen to wash down some dishes. When Mama returns, I report that business is dead and I think we should close up shop.
“It’s barely after one. Let’s give it another hour or two,” she says.
I feel like quitting right here and now. I could move in with Mac. Life with him wouldn’t be so bad. Foot powder and a mani/pedi every month would fix him right up.
“I haven’t had a real break this morning,” I say. “I’m going out.” I’m out of there and moving down the sidewalk before she can even protest.
Minutes later, I’m sitting alone under the terrace’s shelter at the town library. Most of the other townspeople have gathered farther up the street around the hill where the courthouse sits.
Henri’s Bakery is a red brick building, like most of the shops on Main. A sign outside the door says HENRI’S in orange neon lights. A man comes out the door of the bakery carrying two coffee cups. Five more people enter. I imagine Mama in there rushing around, filling cups and scooping up turnovers. “Screw her,” I mumble. If she can go see Luke for half an hour every morning, then I can sit here another fifteen minutes.
People come and go from Henri’s. The line spills out onto the sidewalk. At one point Mama peeks her head out the front door and looks left and right, but I duck my head and turn away.
The sky darkens faster than I anticipated, not like a regular dusk where the sky changes so gradually. The streetlights come on. A little girl stands on her father’s toes as he waltzes her up and down the street. She wears her hair in cornrows, a style I wore at that age. It makes me feel warm in the belly to see a daddy and daughter love each other so much. I never danced with my daddy.
I take the eclipse viewer glasses from my apron pocket and put them on. Everyone in town seems to be looking up at that sky. Darker and darker it grows. The final image is a simple ring encircled by light. So pretty, the people gasp, pointing. To me, though, it’s a letdown. All that talk and camping out on the square just to see a circle of light?
The sky begins to lighten. Mac stands out on the sidewalk in front of the bakery, waiting for me. I don’t want a thing to do with that place, but I do wish I could squeeze Mac. Most nights when he’s off shift, he stays over with me. We drink cheap coffee and eat salty snacks as we sit on the little porch that overhangs Mama’s roof. He’s a foreman at the plant and seems content with it. Lived here his whole life and never wonders what it would be like to leave. I want to see other places. Once, I coaxed him into driving to Atlanta one weekend, just to see it. He drove, hunched over the steering wheel through all that traffic on the interstate, never once complaining because he knew the trip was what I wanted. When I finally do leave this town, I’ll miss Mac.
I take the long way home, walking slowly around the businesses on the south end of Main Street—the electric company, the old ice cream shop with its neon sign that sits higher than any other.
Ralph greets me at my front door. I pick him up and take him into the bedroom. There are lots of pictures of Ralph, Mama, Mac and me together. I go to the dresser and look at the one of us at the park the weekend I turned twenty-two. It was the single happiest day I can remember. Even the weather was perfect.
I take Ralph to the bed and pet his fur as I lie on my side. He starts to bark as someone comes up the stairs outside. I shush Ralph, but he goes to the door and I hear him scratching his paw against the wood as Mac knocks and hollers for me.
I flip over onto my back and stare at the ceiling. He’s such a good man. Something is wrong with me. I’m angry. Bitter. And something else, something I can’t name.
Finally, I hear Mac’s retreating footsteps growing fainter as he descends the stairs. I go to the front window with Ralph at my heels to watch Mac as he walks back toward Main Street. Above Mac’s head, black birds fly over the trees near Bushy Creek. Once, I saw a black bird flying alone, away from the flock, moving toward the highway as though escaping something. Flying away.