A few weeks after arriving in St. Cloud, Eddie started to pick up jobs here and there. He randomly encountered Sandy, the waitress from the Hungry Haven, at a drugstore and she told him that an overworked construction guy who didn’t do concrete had heard about a divorcée in a Victorian outside Pierz who needed a whole pool patio and front walkway done. Pouring concrete didn’t require much finesse, and the construction guy could handle anything Eddie couldn’t. When Eddie met with him, the guy made the call while Eddie sat right there. People did favors for strangers here, Eddie noted, without exactly being friendly. Nevertheless, he felt like he had a reprieve. Bethella had mixed feelings about his decision to work. Sometimes she warned him to get a diploma, other times she openly wished for solitude, seeming to imply that he should get a steady job and get gone.
Eventually Bethella stopped tolerating Eddie’s announcements about going to find Darlene. Your mother and I—she would begin, always neglecting to finish the thought. Then she’d say, Just don’t. You have to have a bottom line.
Darlene had called the house, begging him to return, but it soon dawned on Eddie that she hadn’t quit drugs. Their conversations splintered into anger and incoherence, and while brooding over their relationship in his workspace—aka Bethella’s basement—one day, he admitted to himself that some problems—and some people—can never get fixed, even by a skilled handyman.
After that, Eddie might speak abstractly about going to rescue his mother, but he said very little to his aunt about the exploitation and injury he’d suffered at Delicious Foods. She never encouraged him to return for Darlene, and she never asked for details. The more time went by, the more ashamed he grew about taking Darlene’s side, and the more he saw the sense in Bethella’s dispassionate, rational decision to cut her off.
In the meantime, good luck at work made hedging easier for him. His one job grew other jobs, then an apprenticeship, and soon a regular business sprouted up around him. That September Eddie turned eighteen and moved from Bethella’s to an apartment just down the street, so they could still look out for each other. Sometimes Eddie would go over to her house to watch her new favorite TV show, a sentimental series featuring a black woman angel. She would rub his shoulder blade and describe her pride in him, but he could still hear the undertones of her relief that he’d left. She might come over with a piled-up plate sometimes—no sweet potato pies, but juicy greens that made the breading flop off her overcooked fried chicken; mashed potatoes in a tinfoil pouch, soaking up its metallic taste; undercooked pig feet. He ate only enough to be polite. He never complained—he knew that good intentions always trumped bad soul food, and he grew as comfortable with the surrogate motherhood she provided as she did with the way that he partially filled the space left by Fremont’s death.
In due time, Eddie learned to stick a pen in his mouth and write again, and once he gained some skill, he sketched out a device: Two short cups, each with a pair of pincers attached, a simpler model of a prosthetic hook he’d studied in a trade magazine. The carpenter to whom he’d become apprenticed helped him make a version out of wood—cheaper that way. Together they perfected it, a custom fit for the end of his right arm. They smoothed and finished it, covered it in a lightweight polymer, and when that one worked, they made another for his left, attached it to a harness with catgut strings, and looped it around his back.
Wearing the contraption felt as grand to him as putting on an expensive new suit. Eddie stretched his arms and elbows, testing out the potential for movement, for subtle inflections in each pincer, for a lifelike bend in the wrist. The prosthesis seemed to wipe out the past and stretch the future into infinity. Eddie began to hope ferociously. Perhaps he would go back south after all and get Darlene to leave Delicious whether she wanted to or not.
He spent eight months or so gaining dexterity. Mornings and late nights, he’d practice picking up grains of rice, turning doorknobs, spigots, and pages, holding utensils, raising glasses. As he grew more confident, he tried juggling two eggs, but after covering his kitchen table in goo, he switched to small rocks.
The range and subtlety of motion Eddie’s invention offered him expanded his abilities well beyond what he’d hoped. Pouring concrete and tarring roofs no longer made up his entire work schedule. After being in St. Cloud for a year and a half, he returned to doing electrical wiring and repairing appliances, as he had done at the farm, though it took longer to overhaul a radio than before. He had trouble managing the tiny screwdrivers, the intricate circuitry. But soon.
To the clients he started attracting, Eddie became something of a curiosity. They would come in to watch him work in his garage, behind a house he now rented, and he would sit intently on his high wobbly stool, lit by a bright fluorescent desk lamp, amid oily file cabinets and plastic drawers full of washers, lug nuts, screws, nails, and grommets. They would stay sometimes until it seemed rude—fascinated, he assumed, by the fact that a physically disabled man could make a profession of such precise work, by the added hardship brought on by his color, and eventually by the minute detail he could accomplish using only the curved wooden hooks of his prosthetic hands.
Eddie knew that they viewed him as a novelty, but he didn’t have the luxury of begrudging them their reactions. Instead he sought to translate the amazement in their faces into a stable income. If he could’ve pulled coins directly out of their mouths, he would have. He’d meet the men’s sheepish gawking with technical conversation: These here wires—This darn microchip—Did you ever see a circuit board this—Your screen has blown out. Or if they showed no interest in the gadgets or home repairs he hunched over, he’d start with the weather. You could nearly always complain about the cold in Minnesota, and if you couldn’t, you could marvel that for once it wasn’t cold, or about the strange summer heat. You could then graduate to the Twins or the Vikings. Somebody who brought a child or a dog into his garage hardly had a choice about whether to become a regular customer; when the pressure to seem compassionate and good in Eddie’s presence intersected with the cuteness of animals and children, the resulting atmosphere could probably have made a bedridden hermit throw a dance party. Only the kids ever asked about his condition, though, and, provided the adults didn’t hush them, he’d speak frankly and jovially.
One day a red-haired girl asked, Hey, mister, how come you have claws?
I had an accident, he told her calmly, though at the same time he remembered every second—the blindfold made with a sweatshirt, the tension in his clenched teeth, the moment when he blacked out from the pain.
Her father stroked the nape of her neck. Don’t bother the handyman when he’s busy, Viv.
He’s a handyman without hands, Viv observed.
Her father let out a loud, anxious laugh, Viv giggled, and Eddie turned away from his work for a moment to share their laughter. As the father laughed, Eddie wondered if the man would hold the comment against his child. But the tension ebbed, and Eddie leaned down until some flyaway strands of her hair tickled his nose.
You know, that’s exactly right, Miss Wilson. I never thought of it in that way.
Her father made an apologetic mouth. She’s darn plucky, my Vivian. I’m sorry, Mr. Hardison.
No need, Eddie said. That’s a great saying. I’m gonna put that on my business card. He turned to the girl. How would you like that?
I guess that would be fine, Vivian said demurely.
Be careful, her father warned him. This one will want royalties down the line.
The following week, Eddie visited the printer and offset a run of small stiff cards emblazoned with his name and contact information, carrying the girl’s description above it in red, curved like a rainbow over a landscape, with a river zigzagging through the center.
Handyman Without Hands
When he thought of the phrase, Eddie didn’t mind that it reduced his troubles to a friendly, manageable quirk. The funny, contradictory label covered up all the loss and the pain and made it so that customers could approach him with a feeling of comfort and friendliness. People didn’t recoil or start anymore when their eyes traveled to the ends of his wrists. He’s the Handyman Without Hands, they’d say. How cool is that?
The St. Cloud Times wrote an article about him and his business; in the photo, he grinned, holding his prostheses up, a hammer balanced in the right one. The headline described him as a local John Henry—as if you could find that many John Henrys in Minnesota, he snickered to himself. Eddie saved twenty-five copies of the article, and though he gave most of them away, he hung one above his workspace inside a plastic sheath.
Soon a flood of customers sought out Eddie’s services, people who had seen the article or the card or heard about him through friends and relatives. He welcomed the mild amusement spread across their creamy complexions, the nervous questions pumping through their blue veins. He preferred curiosity to derision, so he controlled his impatience because the discomfort came with a bag of gold attached. Some of the white folks brought items to him that they wouldn’t otherwise have bothered to get fixed, just to meet Eddie Hardison, the Handyman Without Hands.
The superior quality of his work, however, brought a large percentage of the gawkers back with more serious issues—prewar homes begging for rewiring, bathtub reglazing, wood-paneling installation or removal, patio design and reconstruction. He saved for and bought a more up-to-date prosthesis—stainless steel this time—but he preferred the comfort and facility of the earlier model, wearing the newer one mostly for public appearances: socials at the Nu Way Missionary Baptist Church, business meetings, visits with friends.
Two and a half years after arriving in St. Cloud, Eddie opened a bona fide shop downtown, Hardison’s, selling hardware, fixing appliances, organizing home repairs. When the florist next door went out of business, he expanded into that space. The shop thrived, and the novelty of the Handyman Without Hands wore off, but Eddie never removed the phrase from his business card.
Eddie didn’t let his disability get in the way of an active life, and that attitude paid off in many ways. On an ice-skating outing to St. Paul, he met a paralegal named Ruth, four years his senior. Ruth was the only woman he’d met in Minnesota who remained unfazed by his missing hands, though she did prefer to remove or warm up his metal prosthesis with her cardigan before lovemaking. After eight months of dating, which Bethella considered too short a time, Ruth moved in with him and became his fiancée. They had a son out of wedlock whom they named Nathaniel. The boy seemed to inherit his father’s tenacity and his grandfather’s charisma.
Eddie presumed that by drafting and adhering to such an average blueprint for a life, he could overcome his misfortunes and shake off all the agonizing memories of Delicious Foods, but they never left him, nor did the urge to return to Louisiana and set things right disappear completely. Sometimes he snapped awake in the earliest-morning hours, convinced that he was back at the farm. Shrouded in pitch-black, the memories would return, alighting on his bed like dark birds poised to attack him. Inevitably, they seemed to say, someone will reveal everything that happened on that farm, and you will have to go back.
From DELICIOUS FOODS. Used with the permission of the publisher, Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2015 by James Hannaham.