Inside the Biddle Street Laundromat, Azma Badeau sits with her back against a washer and her feet stretched out toward the soda machine. The spin cycle massages her shoulders and loosens a knotted muscle she earned carrying in a full basket of clothes. At forty-either, Azma does not consider herself too old to do these chores without help, but neither is she strong enough. These sudden knots of pain take hold of her more often these days.
Not that she has any shortage of help at her disposal. Any man in Jordan Creek would lean out a window to offer a hand. Just this afternoon one pulled into the parking lot behind her. “No, of course,” she’d said, with a gesture toward straightening her hair. “I expect I can still haul my own dirty clothes.”
Women look out for her, too, in the concerned way young wives have toward any unmarried woman. Every Jordan Creek matron is entitled to speak authoritatively toward her, even if she is nineteen, and panting behind her enormous first pregnancy. On the other hand, they do not doubt that she possesses the powers her highway signs speak of. They offer her wifely wisdom, but cautiously and with respect: “Miss Badeau, you nearly left your umbrella, and the radio swears we’ll get rain today.” Azma smiles and pretends she needs their help because it amuses her. The muddier she appears on a daily basis, the more her sudden bursts of insight impress her neighbors. They sit in groups on their porches at night, telling stories about Azma’s dalliance with the occult.
They use for evidence Nevlin, the 15 year-old Negro boy who lives with her, and for whom she has never offered excuse or explanation. In few parts of the country would it be acceptable to say “Negro” in any context, but Jordan Creekers have never used any other word to describe Nevlin. Even the Blacks in town say it, since in spite of his wooly hair and wide African face, he is not at all black. He is a translucent mother-of-pearl, with a rabbit’s pink eyes.
The men who think of Azma living alone, and the women who sigh that she has never had a child, are wrong on both counts, because they do not count Nevlin. To them he is less a human member of the community than a curiosity which, as far as they know, Azma conjured up out of an incantation and a full moon.
The truth is nothing so spectacular, which is no doubt why they choose not to remember it. Nevlin was born the child of Azma’s college friend Cessie Hornsby. Another thing Jordan Creek has forgotten is that Azma got away to college, for a little while, even if she didn’t stay. She won a scholarship to a state college in Kentucky that was giving tuition to kids from Appalachia who had the gumption to fill in the application form. Azma didn’t have the gumption, but her teacher did – a mannish looking thirty year-old from the Virginia Tidewater who later married, and never knew that Azma didn’t go back for a second year.
Fifteen years after that, and fifteen years ago, Cessie came for a visit. She drove a Volkswagen beetle, and carried a pathetic-looking infant. It was no more surprising than Cessie showing up in the first place, with her shag hair cut and clove-smelling cigarettes. Azma took it in stride. When she went to the back porch to fetch a jar of tea that was brewing in the sun, Cessie left through the front in her Beetle without her baby. Azma sat down next to him on the kitchen table, and asked him what he wanted for dinner…
Azma has been watching the lines develop in Nevlin’s hands since he was a baby. It is through them, and not from his mother, that she has pieced together Nevlin’s story. Marks on his lifeline tell her how he lost a parent very early, and lead her to believe that he is not Cessie’s child at all, but someone who was passed along to her, and who she quickly got rid of. When he was a year old, she saw a sign of ill health – impending heart trouble – and took him to a pediatrician in the city who was able to draw up exercises she could do with Nevlin to make him stronger. The doctor had a hard time believing Azma had read signs, though she was absolutely honest with him, and the baby did have a high pulse for his age.
She delighted as his fingers grew long and thin, symbols of his spirituality and his potential for intellectual achievements. When he was seven, and his bones had settled into their permanent positions, she had him trace his hand on a piece of paper and study the shape of it. She explained that the spaces between his fingers and the way his thumb dropped away from the rest of his hand were special signs that he would do great things in the world.