He told her she was drunk. He told her he was foodless. His stepfather was already asleep; chuffing like a tiger on the Barcalounger, while eddies of dust swirled around his form from the recent plop of his butt on the thick cushion. If not for the stench of stale alcohol and unfiltered Camels, he could have been an ugly angel with a receding hairline.
Hugo had shown disrespect. He knew it as he finished the accusation and his ear lobes began to twitter.
He had been sitting at home, surrounded by peeling paint and rotting wood, trying to do homework, while his stomach protested. Hunger made Hugo brave. He rehearsed the encounter over the cold can of green beans he had eaten hours before. It played out similarly to this. He, like Martin Luther King, also had a daydream. In it, his mother, like that of his best friend, Mike Mathews, when Hugo had slept over at Mike's one Friday night, would walk in alone and say, “Sorry boys! I got stuck at work, but I picked up two larges with extra pepperoni on them. Is that okay?”
Hugo’s mother did not have a job. Hugo was fairly certain that the words, “Is that okay?” had never been uttered by his mother. It was okay if she deemed it okay. His mother did not have much money for pizza. Her money financed liquid diets. Hugo generally got saltines and peanut butter for lunch, if the jar wasn’t empty. Tonight, there were no crackers and only one spoonful of peanut butter. The other contents of the refrigerator were mustard, ketchup, and moldy bread. Hugo usually threw out the moldy things in the ‘fridge, but he had decided to see how long it would take Gloria or Bonney, his stepfather was Irish or something, to dispose of the fuzzy loaf.
“How dare you!” Gloria bellowed. “Go get the cooler,” she said more quietly, which meant there was no talking her out of it.
Hugo pressed his lips together and they turned light pink with the exertion. “Get it yourself,” he said and ran to his room.
Gloria could be fast when she was drunk. Her hand was on the doorknob, holding it firmly to the right so Hugo could not lock it. “Let go,” he whined as his stocking feet slid back on the pitted hardwood. The door inched open. He let go. Gloria stumbled into the room and sprawled across the bed. Hugo crouched in the corner, starting to whimper with rising anticipation of his inevitable beating.
Now she settled on the bed, leaning against the headboard like drunken royalty. She patted the pillow beside her. Hands wringing, his thumbs already chapped from too much rubbing. Hugo could hear his teacher in the conference. “He rubs his thumbs together so much during tests that he gets blisters.”
His mother’s innocent reply, “Gosh, Ms. Keller, I’ll talk to him about that. He just wants to do well, I think.”
Hugo stopped just out of Gloria’s reach. Her smile faded; a displeased queen. “Don’t make me make you.”
He inched closer, wringing faster. Now his lips puckered and moved back and forth, his mouth wrinkled and small. He sat, right where she patted. “Good boy,” she whispered. “Now, go get the cooler, then pull your father’s belt off.” Here she paused for effect. “Do not wake him, or it’ll be worse. Go now.”
His watery eyes fell on her face and she smiled. “God is watching. Honor thy mother.” She pointed at the crucifix above the headboard. “I’ll be waiting right here.”
Hugo went to the kitchen and hefted the blue and white cooler, then remembered that it rolled. He pulled the handle, lifting it onto the two wheels, slowing down as he passed Bonney. He put it down at the foot of his bed. His mother watched. “Now the belt.” She pointed up at the cross again.
He stood next to Bonney, who snored more deeply, no longer sounding like a tiger, but more like a pig. A skinny, alcoholic pig with bags under his eyes. “Don’t wake him,” Hugo whispered. He knew that Bonney was worse or better than his mother, depending on what kind of booze he imbibed. It smelled like beer tonight, which explained his state; however, he could have had other liquors over the course of the day, creating a much more unpredictable evening. Best to let sleeping pigs lie. He began to unbuckle the belt. Bonney twisted slightly, but did not wake.
Hugo looked down the hall at his open door. Light played across the pockmarked floor and up the beige wall. His mother was out of sight, confident in her invisible hold over him. He had just read about the elephants who, as babies are tied to a stake with a strong rope. They try to escape, but cannot. Eventually, all that’s needed when they are adults is a piece of string because they believe escape is impossible. They truly don’t know their own strength. Over his left shoulder, the front door stood, unlocked—a string.
Hugo went back to pulling the belt apart. The metal buckle clicked once. He winced, then continued. He pushed the end through the first couple loops on Bonney’s right side, barely touching him. Bonney didn’t move. Now came the hard part. He started around the back, but the thick cushion pushed up against Bonney’s waist, sealing the leather in place. He had to push the warm corduroy away from the denim jeans then slide the belt out of each loop. He got the first one, but the second required him to push down on the cushion on Bonney’s right side, while trying to reach around and pull the belt from the left. Hugo held his breath because he was right against Bonney’s sweaty armpit. It smelled like the pit of hell his mother constantly spoke of. He pulled, but no give.
Hugo backed away and heaved deep breaths, like a pearl diver, he returned. This time, he pushed the cushion down more and yanked. The belt slid free! Again, Bonney’s hand twitched, then he lay still again. The snoring resumed with a snort. The belt came free with a final tug. He buried his nose in the corner of his shirt, smelled his own sweat and cotton, a relief from the putrid pit of hell.
He looked up at Bonney whose mouth hung open. A dribble of drool oozed from the middle of his bottom lip. As his vision swept over the beltless jeans, he noticed something green protruding from Bonney’s right front pocket. The tiny number five in light green glowed like neon and the words, “THIS NOTE IS…FOR ALL,” in miniature marched above the number like soldiers. Five dollars, a fortune at Dunbar’s.
Hugo started down the hall with the brown leather gently knocked against his leg. The buckle was burrowed in his hand like a field mouse, staying silent from the circling hawk. He stopped halfway down the hall as his stomach lurched and gurgled. Then it hit him, red beans and rice, with a hint of mint. It blasted through the open window on the wings of courage. He could see the steaming plate, sitting on his neighbor, Judee’s, dining room table, the smell escaping out her window.
Hugo placed the belt on the couch next to Bonney. He gingerly tugged the fiver free. He walked out the front door, slamming it with all his might, as the string broke with alarming ease. He liked waking Bonney up and showing his mother who the boss was. He ran, and ran until his lungs ached and his legs screamed. He was the third fastest kid in his class, even though he was also the shortest.
He ran down Lowerline Avenue for five blocks. He pulled out the fiver as he ran. He studied Abe Lincoln. Abe did not make eye contact, forever looking off to Hugo’s right. “You know where we’re going,” thought Hugo as he veered right on Freret Street. Dunbar’s fried chicken was almost a mile down. Hugo ran right by McDonalds with its usual wildlife: two homeless fellows and a surprisingly healthy looking cat in the parking lot. Three cars waited in the drive thru, exhaust lazily rising from tailpipes. A yellow and red sign declared: “$1 Menu: I’m Lovin’ It!”
Half a mile down Freret, Hugo held the fiver crumpled in his wet fist. His feet pounded on the unforgiving concrete as the moist night air enveloped him. He imagined the elephant, standing by a stake that some slave had pounded into the earth, the top of the stake flattened by the massive circle and bash of the man’s sledgehammer. The thick rope, tied around the little elephant’s neck, his freedom restricted so early in life, like a latchkey kid. Did his mother get to nurse him while he was tied up? Did he get to wander in the grasslands before standing in brown all day? The gum-stained concrete beneath his feet and the dark asphalt with the solid yellow lines beside him all rose up. They somehow defied gravity. They rose into eternity.
He looked both ways. No headlights. It was almost nine at night. He darted into the street, running momentarily on the double-yellow lines. Then, lights loomed ahead. He zipped back onto the safety of the sidewalk. As he passed the store where his mother bought clothes, Bloomin’ Deals, he prayed Dunbar’s was still open.
Hugo arrived in front of Dunbar’s, a plastic blue and white sign sat in the window. It read: OPEN. On the main sign, it said, “Dunbar’s: A Place for Soul Food.” The smell of oleaginous poultry assaulted Hugo’s senses as he opened the door. The place looked like a house, only with a lot more tables and plastic chairs. Everything was white and clean. Fake flowers, like the ones he saw in Mike’s mom’s Volkswagon, sat in plastic vases in the center of every table, along with napkins, salt, pepper, and a bottle of Dat 'L Do It hot sauce.
“What you want, baby?” said a large, African lady from behind a counter. Hugo leaned over, catching his breath. He held up Abe and dropped it on the bar.
“I want soul food. All I can eat for $5, right?”
The cook poked his head out. “We closed,” he said.
“Na-ah,” panted Hugo, pointing at the open sign.
“Damn it woman, didn’t I tell you to turn that sign and lock da door?” The cook glared at the lady as he wiped his butcher knife across his apron.
She looked at him, disinterest thick, then swung her gaze back to Hugo. “You lock that door, baby, and turn that sign to read closed, okay? Then, ol’ grumpy here will fix you a plate.”
Hugo walked to the door, turned the lock, and flipped the sign. This was even better, now no one else could get in. He felt safe, maybe for the first time in his life.
“Pick a table, baby.”
Hugo spotted one, with a white tablecloth and a red flower, right in the middle of the room. He sat down. She brought him a Coke. “Where your mamma, baby?”
“She’s on a trip. She gave me money to eat tonight. We like soul food.”
Ding! “Food’s up!” said the cook.
“Do I get it?” asked Hugo.
She patted his shoulder. “I got it, baby. You sit. You look like you just run a marathon.”
She brought the plate over. He read the white bottom as she brought it down: “Made in China.” It overflowed with fried chicken, white rice smothered with red beans, and two generous slices of cornbread. She also handed him a set-up, as he began to dig in.
“Baby, I know you hungry, but you gotta put your napkin in your lap firs’, then you say thanks, then you eat.”
He did it, while she stared at him. He said a silent prayer of thanks, more for being away from his house than for the food. His soul was weary. He drank in the peace of this place, then began to eat. He finished the plate and said, “I can still eat.”
The cook looked annoyed, then disappeared. He rang the bell again and another plate appeared. She refilled his Coke. He ate and drank. He belched, then asked for another. All the other customers had left. He re-locked the door each time. After the fourth plate, he sat back. Both the lady and the cook had finally sat down with him and were drinking coffee. The cook smoked.
The lady then smiled and leaned back, “Stop being a baby and bend over the cooler.”
He looked down at the floor and there was the blue and white cooler. He looked up. She rested her elbow on the table. In her hand was a belt. She opened her mouth again and alcohol wafted out. He looked down at the table and a pack of Camels stared back at him. He was standing and the table morphed into his bed.
The cook morphed into Bonney who grabbed his hair and said, “Why’d you wake me with that door, boy? You know I don’t like bein’ waked.”
His mother leaned in, “Where’d you ever get the notion you could out run me? I got a car. Now, lay over the cooler, so we can get started.”
Hugo lay over the cooler. His stomach screamed.