Mama rocks the empty cradle

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ROAD RAGE

From the corner of my eye I saw the driver of the blue Ford pick up speed. He put on his turn signal, then pulled out in front of me. As he drew even with me, he threw up his index finger like he was pulling the trigger of a gun. The Ford slowed, then shot past me along the deserted road.…

When I noticed the blue Ford again, it was ahead of me, the driver moving less than twenty miles per hour. I slowed. As I did, he put on his signal to pull off to the side of the road, as if he had a flat tire. I drove past, looking for any sign of car distress. There was none. But as I pulled past, I noticed the baby’s car seat strapped behind him.

The whole encounter took less than a minute and I wouldn’t have thought any more about it except the Ford soon caught up with me again. This time the driver didn’t pass. He was driving so close behind me that I thought he was going to ram my tail end. I glanced at the rearview mirror. The driver was staring at me unblinkingly. Something in the look on his face told me that this man would hurt me if he ever got the chance.…

Bantam Books by Nora DeLoach

Mama Stalks the PastMama Rocks the Empty Cradle

and coming soonfrom Bantam Books

Mama Pursues Murderous Shadows

This edition contains the complete textof the original hardcover edition.NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED.

MAMA ROCKS THE EMPTY CRADLEA Bantam Book

PUBLISHING HISTORYBantam hardcover edition / 1998Bantam mass market edition / November 1999

All rights reserved.Copyright © 1998 by Nora DeLoach

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.For information address: Bantam Books

eISBN: 978-0-307-79492-5

Bantam Books are published by Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Its trademark, consisting of the words “Bantam Books” and the portrayal of a rooster, is Registered in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in other countries.Marca Registrada. Bantam Books, 1540 Broadway,New York, New York 10036.

v3.1

 

Dedication

ToWilliam, Sr., my husband of thirty-four years;Edwin, my oldest son;Shekinah, my daughter (and best friend);Vincent, my son-in-law; their sons,Joshua, my first grandchild, andCedric, the newest addition to our family;William, Jr., my youngest son;Stacey, his wife;Delcena, my niece;Richard, her husband; andMorgan, their daughter.

Contents

Cover

Other Books by This Author

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Part 1 - Midnight … OneChapter OneChapter TwoChapter ThreeChapter FourChapter FivePart 2 - Midnight … TwoChapter SixChapter SevenChapter EightChapter NineChapter TenChapter ElevenChapter TwelveChapter ThirteenChapter FourteenChapter FifteenChapter SixteenChapter SeventeenChapter EighteenChapter NineteenChapter TwentyPart 3 - Midnight … ThreeChapter Twenty-one

About the Author

MIDNIGHT …ONE

The midday heat was desertlike. Soybean husks seasoned the air. Midnight stopped to sniff a clump of kudzu, then crossed a makeshift bridge which led to an almost hidden path. He was near the large branch that made a shadowy tunnel overhead. He sniffed again. The air smelled of rain.

The dog’s coat gleamed ebony. He walked forward slowly, wagging his tail, then stopped to bark at a squirrel who, after scampering up a tree, turned and stared contemptuously down into his eyes. The sounds of singing birds filled the darkening July sky. The Labrador lumbered toward the carpet of leaves. It had been a little over six months since he last stood under the huge oak that flanked the old house.

The shack’s door squeaked in the rising wind.Midnight eyed the red-tipped shrubbery then began digging. Overhead, what started as a gentle sprinkle quickly turned into a downpour. Midnight headed home.

It was dark and wet when the dog walked into his backyard. He barked. The door opened. Midnight smelled food; love and warmth were inside. A tall dark man patted his head. “What you got there, boy?” he asked.

Midnight’s tail wagged as he dropped the infant’s skull at his master’s feet.

CHAPTERONE

I’d failed.

Frustration hung over my head like a halo. The task hadn’t been hard. My boss had given me a routine assignment, one that normally took me less than a week to do. “Run a paper trail, find this witness; our client swears he exists,” he’d said. Then he gave me a name, a description, and an approximate age.

When I didn’t come up with the person, my boss, one of Atlanta’s best defense lawyers, plea-bargained for his client. Then he boarded a plane from Hartsfield to take a European vacation.

I sat, staring at a diploma that I’d taken so much pride in earning, and thinking about the day I’d interviewed for the position of paralegal in Sidney Jacoby’s research department. I’d already had fivesuch interviews in less prestigious law offices without a hint of a job offer.

Except for my urge to flick dandruff from his shoulders, I swiftly sized Sidney Jacoby up to be pretty cool. Sidney looked down at my résumé, then back up to meet my eyes. “Simone Covington,” he said, as if he liked the sound of my name.

I nodded.

“Graduated from Emory, I see.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Are you going on to law school?”

“No,” I admitted. “I like the legal research.”

Sidney laughed. “I like the research myself,” he admitted. “Did a lot of that when I was in law school.”

“You were a paralegal?” I asked, surprised.

“Yes,” he said, shaking his head, his dark brown eyes twinkling in a way that made me sure he could be warm with compassion at one moment and cold at the next. He leaned back in his seat, and crossed his fingers in front of him. “Nobody can tamper with the truth,” he continued. “If you dig deep enough, peel off all the layers of appearances, cut away through the lies, and strip through the absurdities, you’ll find the truth, Miss Covington.”

I smiled.

“The adrenaline you feel from the experience is priceless,” he said.

My eyes widened. I believed the man, believed he shared my passion for getting to the heart of things.

“When I was a boy,” he continued, “I almostdrove my mother crazy. Later, after I’d finished law school, my father died. I offered to move back home, thinking I could help her. She wouldn’t have it. She even gave me five thousand dollars and told me, ‘I cannot take another day of your questioning everything and everybody that comes to my house.’ ”

We laughed.

“My teachers loved me,” I said. “They could always count on me to research the things that they couldn’t find time to research themselves.”

Sidney said, “I could never do anything that other kids called fun, but I knew the details of just about anything. And the things I didn’t know, I wouldn’t stop until I learned them.”

“I suppose we have a gift,” I heard myself say.

“Yes,” he agreed, as if I had said something profound. His eyes twinkled. “And don’t you ever take that gift for granted, Simone Covington.”

The next day, Sidney Jacoby telephoned me and made me a generous offer. Needless to say, I like the man. To be honest, from that day forward, I felt good about working for him. He genuinely believed in what I do, and he supported the way I do it.

I’ve worked for Sidney for five years now, five years in which he had never taken a vacation. Oh, he’d planned to get away, all right—every detail of a six-week tour of Europe from the time the plane leaves Hartsfield until it lands in London, he had planned. But he had never done it.

When I admitted that I’d come up empty-handed in my search for our witness, Sidney didn’t saymuch. But I was sure he was disappointed. I suppose that’s why I was thinking about the day he had interviewed me, remembering our mutual belief in digging until we got what we sought.

Still studying my diploma, I reached for a box of Godiva chocolates and my phone and called my mama. “Sidney’s gone on vacation,” I told her.

“Good, then you can take some time off, too—come home,” she replied.

“Just because Sidney is out of town doesn’t mean that there isn’t any work for me to do.”

“It’s midsummer. Sidney needed a vacation and you do, too.”

“When I told Sidney that I couldn’t come up with his witness,” I told Mama, “he stared like he saw something in me that he’d missed all these years—”

“Simone,” Mama interrupted. “You’re doing it again. Overreacting. It’s normal for people to take vacations in the summer and Sidney is normal. Besides, if that witness existed, youwouldhave found him. Sidney and I both know that!”

I swallowed. “Maybe that’s why he didn’t push me to keep looking,” I said, my spirit lightening.

Mama’s voice was softer. “Forget the case. Take a week’s vacation and come home—I need you.”

“You want help to solve another murder?” I asked, and laughed.

Mama laughed too, a light, musical sound. “Not this time,” she told me. “I’m scheduled for surgery first thing Monday morning.”

I sat up straight. “What kind of surgery?” I demanded. “What’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing serious,” Mama replied. “I’m just having bunions removed from both my feet. I’d planned for James to go with me to the hospital—”

“Hospital?”

“It’s outpatient surgery, Simone,” Mama said. “Anyway, you’d be a big help to me. With Sidney out of the country for six weeks, you can spare a week of your vacation, can’t you?”

“Cliff—” I started to say.

“You and Cliff will have at least two weeks left to do something together. But, tell you what I’ll do,” Mama said, and I knew I was about to be bribed. “You come home on Friday, you and I will shop and cook on Saturday, then Cliff can drive here and have Sunday dinner with you, me, and your father.”

My boyfriend, Cliff, is a divorce lawyer who is working hard to become a partner in his firm. The thought of how much Cliff and I both loved Mama’s cooking whirled through my mind. “Cliff has been pretty busy with another one of his detachment clients,” I said.

“Divorces seem to be plentiful these days,” Mama commented.

I nodded although she couldn’t see me. “It’s worst when a client thinks her divorce lawyer should be at her disposal every minute of the day.”

Mama didn’t say anything.

“How long will you need me?” I asked again. Myspirit rose at the thought of eating another one of my mama’s meals.

“A week,” she said.

“A week,” I repeated, thinking that Sidney would surely expect me to usesomeof my vacation time while he was gone, especially to take care of my mama.

My mama’s name is Grace, but she’s called Candi because of her candied sweet potato complexion.

My parents are originally from Otis, South Carolina. They got married right out of high school and my father joined the Air Force. After a career of thirty years and the birth of my two brothers (Rodney and Will) and me, Captain James Covington retired and he and Mama moved back home to Otis, a town of five thousand people.

“Okay,” I told Mama, “but I want you to cook roast pork, fried chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, string beans and new potatoes, rice and okra. And, for dessert, I want carrot cake and sweet potato pie.”

On Saturday morning, we were in Winn Dixie shopping for groceries when the baby’s wail rang through the aisles. It sounded like somebody hadstuck a hand down the infant’s throat and squeezed its intestines.

I flinched. Mama held her shopping list in one hand, a can of mushroom soup in the other. She was saying something about sodium when the child’s second scream broke her concentration. She glanced in the direction of the cry. “Something is wrong with that child!” she said softly, putting the can of soup back on the shelf.

A voice over the loudspeaker suggested that shoppers visit the produce section … watermelon, grapes, and peaches were on sale. Then one of my favorite songs by the Manhattans began to be piped through the store.

Mama eased her shopping cart toward the juices; I hummed along with the music.

The baby screamed again, the sound as sharp as a police siren. Mama looked at me; I threw her a look of reluctance, but it didn’t do any good. She was going to see what the matter was with that child and that was all there was to it. I shrugged, then followed her toward the noise.

On the next aisle, near the canned vegetables, we spotted a woman who looked all of thirty-five years old, who smelled powerfully like the camphor used for canker sores. She was holding a baby and shaking it. The woman’s skin was dark. She had small eyes, and a very large nose. As we walked toward her, she looked scared, almost terrified.

I glanced at the baby … it was beautiful, althoughits tiny face was as red as the labels on the cans of tomatoes that were on the shelf. It wailed again.

“Birdie Smiley, what’s wrong with that baby?” Mama demanded.

Birdie stammered but she didn’t stop shaking the baby in her arms. “I—I had no business—”

Mama interrupted impatiently, “That’s Cricket’s baby, Morgan. What have you done to that child?”

Birdie didn’t look up. Instead, she began shaking the baby harder. The baby screamed.

“Stop that!” Mama shouted, then she snatched the crying baby from Birdie’s arms. “If you keep that up you’ll knock the wind out of her—she’ll stop breathing!”

Birdie’s body was trembling. Beads of sweat were on her forehead. “I—I ain’t got no business keeping her … ain’t got no business letting her come with me … I just remembered, I ain’t got no business keepingnobody’sbaby!” The words poured from her mouth like a hot flood.

Mama was cradling the sobbing baby in her arms, looking down into its wide-open eyes. “Now, Morgan,” she whispered. “Everything is going to be all right!”

“I ain’t got no business keeping a baby,” Birdie stammered. “Doctor told me I ain’t got the nerves for it … ain’t got no business … can’t take care of no baby … won’t do it again!”

The baby hiccuped and stopped crying. “I was at the hospital the day this baby was born,” Mama said, as if talking to herself. “She had the brightesteyes, and when you talked to her, she paid attention like she understood exactly what you were saying.”

I looked closer at Morgan. She was indeed enchanting. For a moment, I felt a strange inkling, like the prickle of an unfamiliar emotion. Morgan’s eyes charmed me, too.

“Is Birdie some kin to Morgan?” I asked, thinking that such a nervous woman had no business taking care of this delightful baby.

“I don’t think she is,” Mama answered. “Cricket Childs, Morgan’s mother, is one of my clients.” Mama works for the Social Services Department.

“Then this beautiful child is the other side of the coin of a single-parent home,” I said.

“I suppose,” Mama replied, in a tone that told me that she didn’t think my statement relevant.

As long as Morgan held on to my eyes, I had to agree with Mama. This captivating baby girl looked almost a year old. She had thick black hair and a flawless milk-chocolate complexion. Her eyes were dark and bright, her mouth small and round. She smelled of Johnson’s baby powder. But cuteness wasn’t all there was to this little girl. There was something bewitching about that child’s gaze.

Mama smiled down at Morgan, clearly having fallen in love. This baby’s bright beckoning eyes had that kind of power. “I can’t imagine Cricket leaving you, sweet child,” Mama whispered.

Birdie Smiley stood anxiously rubbing her arm and staring at Mama and little Morgan when Sarah Jenkins, Annie Mae Gregory, and Carrie Smalls easedup quietly beside Mama. In Otis, these three women are jokingly called the “town historians” because they go out of their way to know everything about everybody in Otis. Mama actually finds them helpful. She calls them her “source.”

I was surprised to see the ladies, but Mama glanced at them as if she’d known all along that they were in the store. “Ladies,” she said, without taking her attention from the smiling baby, “it’s good to see you.”

“I told you,” Sarah Jenkins said, her voice strong despite her pasty complexion and constant preoccupation with her health, “that was Cricket’s baby hollering.”

Annie Mae Gregory is an obese woman, whose body is the shape of a perfect oval and who has dark circles around her stonelike eyes; Annie Mae always reminds me of a big fat raccoon. When she looks at you a certain way, she appears cross-eyed. She asked Mama, her jaws shaking like Jell-O, “Candi, what are you doing with Cricket Childs’s baby?”

“I ain’t got no business—” Birdie Smiley muttered, as if talking to herself again.

Mama glanced up. “Now, Birdie, Morgan is just fine now.”

Carrie Smalls is a tall woman with a small mouth and a sharp nose. She holds her body straight, like she’s practiced so that her shoulders wouldn’t slump—I’ve told Mama more than once that it’s Carrie Smalls who gives strength to the three women’spresence, who gives a measure of credibility to what these three say. Carrie Smalls looks the youngest; she dyes her hair jet black and lets it hang to her shoulders. Now she looked down into Mama’s arms at the baby girl. “Where’s Cricket?” she asked, in an authoritarian tone.

Just about that time, Koot Rawlins, a large woman known for being full of gas, swung into the aisle and belched. Koot’s shopping cart was full of lima beans, rice, fatback bacon, and Pepsi. She nodded a greeting but kept walking.

I went back to staring down into little Morgan’s face. “My friend Yasmine, the beautician, she had a party a few weeks ago—a young woman named Cricket was there who told me she lived in Otis. Could she be this baby’s mother?” I asked.

Mama’s attention shifted back between me and the baby as if she was surprised. “There’s only one Cricket Childs that lives in this town, and she’s Morgan’s mother, yes.”

Annie Mae Gregory shook her head impatiently. “Where in the world is Cricket now?” she snapped.

Sarah Jenkins looked around. “I declare, Cricket’s got her share of faults—”

“Whatever Cricket’s faults,” Mama interrupted, “she’s a good mother. I can personally vouch for her devotion to this child.”

Carrie Smalls shrugged. “I reckon you think ’cause your job throw you to be with her that you know her better than anybody else. My questionnow is where is Cricket, and why is she letting her baby cause so much confusion in this grocery store?”

“Cricket isn’t far,” Mama said, convincingly. “She must have left Morgan with Birdie for just a few minutes.”

Carrie Smalls motioned to her two companions that it was time for them to leave. “You work for the welfare, Candi,” she told my mother. “You know better than anybody else that if Cricket doesn’t take better care of her child, it’ll be your place to take her away from Cricket and put her in a home where she’d be properly taken care of. A grocery store ain’t no place to drop off a child—”

“I don’t think it’s fair to say that Cricket dropped Morgan off in the store,” Mama pointed out. “Birdie is taking care of the baby.”

Carrie Smalls responded sharply, “There are times when Birdie can’t take care of her own self, much less take care of a hollering baby!”

I watched the three women shuffle down the aisle toward the fruit and vegetables. But Mama ignored them. She was still staring at the baby in her arms. “We’ll find your mama, sweetheart,” she whispered. Her words seemed to hold the child’s attention.

Suddenly, I decided I shouldn’t be a part of this scene. Let me explain. I—I … well, I just don’t have a very strong maternal instinct. Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean I don’t like babies—it’s just that they don’t turn me on like I’m told they are supposed to do!

My girlfriend Yasmine, the one I told you about who fixes hair, is a voluptuous young woman who had her nose job long before plastic surgery became a part of black folks’ thing. Yasmine is about my age, unmarried, no children. And like me, she’s in a monogamous relationship. Her friend’s name is Ernest and while Yasmine won’t admit it, I know she wants Ernest to ask her to marry him so that she could have a house full of babies. Yasmine and I could be walking inside the mall, she’ll see a baby and her eyes will light up. She starts with “ain’t she cute,” or “she’s so precious,” going on and on until I feel like I am going to gag. If the mother of the baby allows, Yasmine even starts talking gibberish that she swears the baby understands.… The whole thing drives me crazy!

I’ve told Yasmine over and over again that the strong feeling for motherhood that she claims is normal just ain’t there for me. “Girlfriend,” she says, “something isseriouslywrong with any black woman that ain’t turned on by a baby!”

I have to admit there are times when I find myself wondering whether Yasmine is right. For instance, as Morgan’s eyes drew me to her like a bee to honey, I found myself wondering what it would be like to have a daughter, and perhaps to have the kind of relationship with her the same as Mama has with me. That thought scared me. After all, I wasn’t Candi Covington. How could I be sure that I could pull off the maternal thing as successfully as she had? Anyway, I didn’t want to dwell on that thought, so Idecided that seeing Mama hold tiny Morgan to her breast, hearing her speak soft, kind words, and seeing Morgan respond with a bubble of spit and cooing soundswasn’twhat I needed to be watching right now.

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