An Improvement

From Chapter Nine of "Delicious Foods"

James Hannaham’s second novel, Delicious Foods, is a tale of modern-day slavery. After a white mob murders Darlene’s husband and burns down their family business in the 1980s, she leaves Louisiana with her young son, Eddie. They travel to Houston, where Darlene works as a prostitute and spirals into addiction. Her drug of choice is crack cocaine; referred to as “Scotty,”  it dominates and overpowers — and narrates for — the young woman. 

One night Darlene boards a van, convinced by the vehicle’s driver, Jackie, of the prospect of stable employment and a lavish living facility. Jackie takes Darlene and a few other recruits to Delicious Foods, a farm located hours away in the middle of nowhere. Soon after, Eddie searches for, finds, and joins his mother at Delicious Foods, where Darlene remains for the perpetual high: Those in charge provide her and the other laborers with a seemingly unlimited supply of crack, leading them further into a debt they won’t be able to pay back. Despite long hours and wretched living conditions, they remain at Delicious Foods for many years.

Narrated by “Scotty,” the following passage appears at the end of Chapter 9, immediately after Darlene’s lover, Sirius, runs away.

On breaks, and in moments when she panicked or got frustrated, Darlene be daydreaming ’bout busting out the contract and running too. During her afternoon, if she raise her head or get a two-minute rest from pitching Sugar Babies to TT or Hannibal, she could squint out cross that infinity cornfield with all them bushes or groves of maples or live oaks here and there that went along the many li’l streams that be zigzagging through the property, so many that couldn’t nobody memorize em, and she pretend she could leave and go back to the calm life she ain’t never had.

One afternoon, they had driven out to the lemon grove Delicious kept in one corner of the joint. The Fusiliers, who running the place, had wanted to specialize in citrus at one time — at least that’s what How said — but this li’l bunch of acres, maybe six or seven, was the only part left of that experiment, which they said used to spread out something like two hundred or three hundred acres but had also failed. But now it had only some twisty lemon and lime trees, and the crew found out it ain’t had too much fruit. After climbing through a whole bunch of rows, the twenty of em had only picked enough fruit to cover the bottom of one tub, and even them lemons was covered with all kinda brown spots and holes.

Even How seen how bad it was, and for once he could only blame the bad soil and them scrubby trees, not the laziness of his pickers. Hannibal went, They know it ain’t the time to pick no lemons, they just giving us busywork or some shit. What the fuck.

But she wasn’t prepared to feel what she felt then: the two fields of corn rising on either side start to breathe, like they got gigantic lungs underneath, like they sighing, she thought, or maybe sleeping.

How ain’t want to, but he gave em a five-minute break and said that after that they gonna be spraying pesticides on the leaves of them trees and aerating the damn soil. Darlene got permission to travel a few yards up the road to squat and pee. On one side the lemon grove there’s another one them giant cornfields, corn they told her mostly gonna feed some livestock, nothing that gonna show up on nobody dining-room table. She found a aisle between two sections that looked private enough to do her business and prepared herself.

By that time of year, the corn be stretching higher than her forehead, ’bout to get harvested, them little yellow tassels be dancing in the wind. Her family raised corn on the small plot she had grew up on — it couldn’t have been far from here, she figured. It had that familiar scent of home to it, sometime she could smell eucalyptus slipping into her nose. Sirius had said that if you stayed still and listened real careful, you could hear the sound of corn growing, a noise that Darlene couldn’t hardly imagine. She figured everything sound like it: the corn leaves rustling, the wind its own self, a creaking-floorboard type sound she could sometimes hear. But she wasn’t prepared to feel what she felt then: the two fields of corn rising on either side start to breathe, like they got gigantic lungs underneath, like they sighing, she thought, or maybe sleeping.

She finish and stood up and thought ’bout running. Anywhere. Just picking a random direction and trying her luck. She tryna figure out which way she gonna have to go to find people who ain’t had nothing to do with Delicious, who would keep her and protect her if need be. The bus had came from a direction she thought was north, and that was the sun in the west. But she ain’t had no way of knowing which way gonna lead somewhere safe the fastest. Folks knew Sirius had runned off, but management ain’t said nothing ’bout it to nobody, like it be a family secret from 1859.

Maybe as a way of talking ’bout Sirius, Hammer and How and the crew started tryna top each other at describing the dangers you run into if you escaped into the woods, even if you found your way to the bayou. Alligators, crocodiles, black bears, quicksand, swamps full of mosquitoes everybody said was the size of birds, wild gun-toting rednecks who went by the old ways, hungry wolf-dogs, voodoo priests who need human flesh for they ritual sacrifices, humongous tree frogs and poison insects, poison ivy, poison oak, hogweed. TT once insisted, all serious, that the Devil out there, the actual one. He kept saying, The Devil — that his sister had seen the Devil, and the Evil One done torn the ligaments in her heel so she couldn’t run, but she crawled back to her car and got away. TT said he seen the torn ligaments and everything. People mostly ain’t took him seriously, but he still told the story good enough to shut everybody up and bring out they sympathies.

Hannibal, over there hugging his fedora, said, I ain’t messing with the Devil.

The earth keep breathing, slower now. Darlene gone over to the exhaling cornfield and put a foot by the edge, then another, then decide to press her way through the tall plants to God knew where: the idea of Away be pulling her farther into the field. But after a minute or two, she realize that they could hear her moving around out there, and that they had put tiny surveillance cameras out in the cornfield, some stuck inside the leaves of the plants, partially to watch the crows and the deer, but also for other reasons. The corn got impossible to push through, and when she done shaking her hands off — they already cut up by them rough, sticky-ass cornstalks — she had to turn around.

Back in the bus, she peering round the geography more careful than ever, hoping she gonna see some shit that give away her whereabouts, that point her in a actual direction, told her what to do. She ain’t never seen, nowhere in the places they drove through, a house or a shack that wasn’t part of the Fusilier property or the buildings owned by Delicious. Smirking, How would point em out to the workers all the time, and Darlene sometime thought he smirked ’cause it meant they couldn’t even be thinking ’bout leaving.

Brushy trees was fanning out cross the ground, sometime gone all the way out to the horizon, sometime they falling off right where the close edge had a sharp drop, maybe down to a river. Fog and mist making it so you couldn’t tell where the field end and the sky start. In elementary school, her science teacher had taught the kids that long ago, when the continents was one continent, the middle of the U.S.A. had sat at the bottom of the ocean, and sometime Darlene find herself imagining that it still there, with the whole of the wind turning into a deep, drowning liquid, with catfish and octopuses skimming all around hills made of sand and seaweed, and prehistoric fish feeding on the naked limbs of dead trees that be pushing up out the dirt.

With the land so flat, the sky took up most the view, and the bigness of the blue made Darlene feel she had shrank whenever she stared up into them gigantic puffing, curling patterns that was smearing and flicking through the sky, looking like a spooky painting, like a prelude to the ridiculous universe up there, where it wasn’t no air, and everything a quazillion miles from everything else and stars be diamonds. At the end of every day, while the horizon going black and she watching the stars and planets blink above the smoke from the planes, she thinking ’bout Eddie, and ’bout Sirius, and ’bout the billions of years since the water had drained off, and the billions that’s gonna come, and ’bout how small her world had become. Without putting no words on them thoughts, she got pretty sure that she ain’t matter, and she did break out running, but she ran back toward all the things in life she knew for sure — especially me.

Excerpted from Delicious Foods by James Hannaham. Copyright (c) 2015 by James Hannaham. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.

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