Fiction Melany Neilson The Persia Cafe

ISBN 13: 9780312262198

The Persia Cafe

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9780312262198: The Persia Cafe

The disappearance of a black boy in a small Mississippi town plunges young Fannie, a girl who dreams of cooking her way to a better life, into her town's own heart of darkness. 20,000 first printing.

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About the Author:

Melany Neilson grew up on a farm near Ebenezer, Mississippi. Her first book, Even Mississippi, won the Lillian Smith Award, the Mississippi Authors Award, was named Gustavas Myers Outstanding Book on Human Rights, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She now lives in California with her husband, Fred Slabach, and her young twin sons. The Persia Café is her first novel.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Wedding CakeI CAME TO COOKING EARLY on. I should better say I went fishing one Saturday, brought home a small batch of catfish, and held them up for my mother’s applause. I stood on a chair by the kitchen counter, hands yellow-gloved in cornmeal. We fried them and sat down to the table and ate. Lastly she repeated her applause over the remains of crust crumbs and devastated fish bones, for my fish to my mother, like sin to the preacher, were often doubled in size.Persia’s librarian was Mrs. Nadine Thistle, a woman in her midor late sixties when I was a child. Her library held nearly a thousand books, and she claimed to have read every one. Fast-fingered, interested, she could mention a title and know its exact location on a shelf. The library was the old train depot, though the books themselves were housed in half the depot, Mrs. Thistle in the other. It was also one of the first places in Persia to be air-conditioned, in addition to the Persia Café. Mrs. Thistle went before the town board and argued that in a place where literacy was devoted to cattle and weather reports,Farmer’s Home, and the sports page, the library was Persia’s toehold on civilization, and that civilization should be preserved. Mrs. Thistle was a sureminded woman, somebody to be reckoned with, so the board granted her request. She drew up library cards with a single rose on them, covered in thistles, a comment, I suppose, on her name. At the bottom of each card in tiny print, in the right-hand comer, was the word AIR-COOLED.I found several books on cooking in the library, including the Magnolia Club’s local collection and a yellow-eared Confederate Receipt Book, published in 1863. But the books I really fell for came from Mrs. Thistle’s private collection. A large green edition of Good Housekeeping Favorite Recipes filled with color photographs of chocolate éclairs, racks of lamb, flaming cakes topped with holly. Oranges scooped and made into little baskets, filled with orange sherbet and decorated with mint leaves, with perfect little orange handles. A duck made from pastry. A pie made from a duck. And M. F. K. Fisher’sServe It Forth, in which the author describes a sky raining potatoes and fifty million snails, Greek honey and the Hon-Zo, the social status of a vegetable, and folk in France who washed in wine, which they made in enormous lakes throughout the countryside.I sat on Mrs. Thistle’s couch, in the main reading room, many afternoons after school. I would open my three-ring notebook and copy recipes, occasionally brushing my hand over the porousness of paper, the crease at the comer of a page that someone had folded over as a mark. Now and then she would look at me over her glasses. Behind her desk was a framed certificate of library science, earned in 1915. One day as she was featherdusting books she paused and looked over my shoulder.“Fisher,” she said. “A follower of Brillat-Savarin.”“Who’s that?”“Another great food writer. ‘Only wise men know the art of eating,’ he said. Yet he was very democratic. A lover of all foods.”“Did he love fried chicken?”“Truth be told, I don’t know. He never tried it in Persia.”She laughed, swished her duster along another shelf, then left me alone until I headed home, in time for supper.My mother shared Mrs. Thistle’s love of books, and so approved of my reading habits. She thought it would help with my schooling. I was not the most studious in my class, but I did stay in school. Mama was determined about that. She had never gone to college, “and you see where it gets you,” she said. “Folding underdrawers for every Tom, Dick, and Harry who can spare the dime.” Which she did. She took in laundry and sewing, and had done so ever since she left school to have me. But this part she did not mention, only saying my father was a closed subject and ancient history, and then she would steer the conversation to subjects she preferred. She had books by Dickens and Emily Dickinson, LPs of Mozart and Debussy’s “Claire de Lune,” and a little reproduction of Rodin’s The Kiss embracing itself on the table by her Singer sewing machine. Mama was an example of someone who would scrape to beat hell and cultivate high taste but still not have much money. So, of course, she was all too glad when I took over the cooking. We had our share of biscuit and gravy meals, yes, but sometimes I would copy down a recipe from the library and repeat it at home. One day at Mama’s suggestion I carried a banana cake to Mrs. Thistle. She thanked me and invited me back to her kitchen, pulled two plates and a knife from the cabinet. She cut two thick slices and as we sat at her table eating, she nodded her approval.Through the years Mrs. Thistle’s approval, offered on one other visit, echoed in my head. “Just cook,” she said. “God gave you that desire for a reason.” Before she died, when I graduated from high school, she gave me her collection of cookbooks. Cooking was what I loved best. It had been from the beginning.Besides Mama and Mrs. Thistle, I cooked for Will Leary, beginning when I was fourteen. Will was the same age as me, the same grade. He lived on the houseboat Elvira with his father, Amos, who owned a small construction business. The houseboat was named for Will’s mother, who had died when he was born. Will had, I was told, some of her dark looks, which were Choctaw, and which directly contradicted his father’s redheaded Scottish coloring. There were no Choctaws left in Persia after the year we were born, 1941. Not long before her death, the story goes, her name was painted down the side of the boat, in cursive green swirls. This appealed to my romantic side, and is what I count as my earliest memory: the river, crickets, the late evening diminishing and stillness, where all colors ran and melted, green dissolving into the lavender of shadows, and Will and his father, on the Elvira, Will riding on his father’s shoulders; Mama carrying me past on the levee, saying, “Wave! Wave!” I must have been no more than two. Later I liked to fantasize a time when boatmen named their boats after names of lovers rather than themselves. A woman seen pulling water from a well, holding a tin cup. Some would-be poet’s woman, whose bare throat makes him cover a boat with her name. The tin cup drizzles water down her chin, and old Amos sweeps a paintbrush over the wood.This was the way it was for me, growing up, with cotton rows and slow open country and the town on the edge of the river. And seeing it, as I did, makes me remember how, years later, Will found me fishing on the levee. I had been sitting there for some time. I would sit at the water and listen to the hours, lapping and dissolving on the rocks, and smell the amber honeysuckle of a fine Saturday morning. The world was floating on a white haze of distance, and Will looked as though he might sleep. He was tan and handsome and fourteen. He didn’t say anything. He just took a seat beside me. Then he picked up a rock. Rubbed its flat side curiously with his thumb. There was some sense of strength in his hands magnified by his holding a thing as slight as the rock. He threw it across the water. It skipped five times, then sank.“You want some lemonade?”He said sure. I handed him my thermos. He took a sip and said, “That’s exactly right. Not too much sugar. Not sour either.” He offered me the rest but I said I’d had plenty, and so he leaned back and drank it down. He finished it in one breath. Licked his lips. There was a speck of rind on the comer. He slid one of his hands over mine along the fishing pole and pulled it toward him and moved my hand to his stomach and pressed it there for a moment. Then he got up and walked toward town.Well, after he left I put my lips on the thermos, where his had been. I could not later explain exactly what made that encounter the one, but I would remember the way the undissolved crystals of sugar had slid from the bottom of the thermos to the silver lip, glistening with that same luminance I felt on my tongue, the ghost of sweetness. So, for many Saturdays afterward, I squeezed lemons. I went back to the same spot, looking. I thought Will would put my hand on his stomach again, but he did not.For several years in deer season he would take me hunting with him. There was a stretch of woods bordering the river just north of Persia not given over to farmland. I brought a feeling of nervous mystery to these hunts: What would Will try next? At five one morning we headed out, this time the dead of winter. It was bitter cold. A band of electric blue on the horizon, and a half moon made the path bright and clear. The woods so silent we didn’t say a word, all the way to the deer stand. The air made clouds of our breaths. Even after we climbed into the stand Will said nothing, while I tried to think of things warm. I had on three layers of clothes; I was sipping black coffee from my thermos to keep my teeth from chattering. We were sitting like that for a while when the silence began to slow down so I could hear the smaller noises. I could hear Will’s breathing. The shift of a branch. Dry leaves crackling as he whispered, “Take the gun, take it! Look through the sight, look!” That was just like Will, startling me in the quiet. His sudden shift reminding me of a passage I read once about the peculiarity of southern weather: For breeze is the soul of a storm testing itself in hollow places. A few years later, for instance, after I had begun to work in the café, we were sitting in this very spot when Will, out of the blue, set his gun down as if interrupting himself and whispered, “I saw y’all’s help talking to the Jones girl—”“Hunh?”“That colored boy. Who delivers milk to the café. The March boy.”“Earnest.”“Right. Well, I saw him yesterday afternoon, talking to Sheila Jones like he knew her.”“And where were you, to see this?”“At the Piggly Wiggly.”“At the front of the store, or on an aisle?”“At the front.”“Outside the counter, or in line?”“In line.”“And—”“And I was getting some Juicy Fruit. She had a couple of Cocolas and some stockings.”“They got stockings at the Piggly Wiggly?”“Or leotards or something. Hell, I don’t know. But he was talking to her like he knew her. He was bagging her groceries and talking.”“Well, that’s his job. Maybe he was being courteous.”“Courteous ain’t the word.”“Sounds to me like it is.”“Yeah but it’s what he did then. What he did was, he handed her the bag. And she dropped it. So she stooped down to get it and he did too. A bottle rolled loose and he put it back in. Then, when he handed her the bag, before they stood back up—I was there at the counter, I saw this—he reached up and touched her hair. I swear. Right then and there. I saw.” By the look of Will’s eyes I was pretty sure he was pulling my leg, but I was taken with his story anyway. I was at the time. I looked at him, open-mouthed and fascinated.“Naaw,” I said. “Naaw!”“Sshh,” Will said. “It was just for a second. A wink of an eye. Then Clarice Lytle walked up behind the Jones girl and says, ‘Hey Sheila.’ And you know what? That girl almost dropped the bag again. She says she best be going and then she shot out the store. Like a frightened deer.” Will frowned. “Like the one we’ve already scared away.”“And Earnest?”“Says, ‘Will that be all, sir?’ He took my Juicy Fruit and bagged it, quick as a whistle. He was squinting down at the bag but I didn’t say nothing.”“I don’t know,” I whispered, after a minute. “Something doesn’t quite wash. Maybe, you know, you thought you saw him touch her hair. Or maybe he just slipped. Maybe there was a bug in her hair.”“Maybe.”“Or maybe you’re flat-out wrong. Maybe we’re gonna sit out here and rattle our teeth for nothing. Those deer long gone before we started talking. Why, they’re back there laughing at those two frozen fools. Sitting out here half the morning and not see a thing.”“Maybe so.” Will shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
In my courting days with Will, I felt an answer looking for me. What? When? The green of the world was breathing out the questions. They followed me in waking moments and blanketed me in sleep. Then one evening, after my sixteenth birthday, Will took me for a walk. We walked for a while aimlessly, without saying anything. We walked down Levee Road on the edge of the bluff, overlooking the river, with the spires of the courthouse and First Baptist behind, and Hardin Hardware, Huit Drugstore, Piggly Wiggly, Ardor Department Store, the two-store buildings, brown brick, water dripping in an alley, and the Persia Café, which was then the only place that served food to white folk in town. The café’s housed in an old white frame home, its downstairs converted, robbed of its juice in drought, warped by damp, swollen by rain, frozen and cracked by frost, so that its mildewed exterior had settled, slightly crooked, a fact demonstrated by a marble, which when placed on one end of the porch, would roll all the way to the other end.As Will and I passed, the neon light of the café sign flickered on, for it was getting toward night: The outline of the café sign kept bursting into ruby light, and every time it went out the vertical letters saying PERSIA CAFÉ faded, but the letters could still be made out as a ghostly shadow teasing the eye before its next ruby wink.“Where we going?” I said.I looked down at his feet clomping out one-twoone-two. He was wearing brown leather boots, very heavy, very square, and the frayed fringe of his jeans flickered, one-twoone-two, hypnotically.“Just walking,” he said.We had left the block of stores and the café, and the faint sound of voices. We passed down the street where tall trees fronted houses, the fleshy leaves touching, a branch jostling as a cat climbed, eyes glowing, claws scratching wood. The windows were open on these houses, with here and there a crack of light, the faint clinking of forks. Against the sky the misty rooftops darkened. Somewhere off a dog barked, and a child laughed. A truck rumbled down the street, then idled, then turned off the motor. At once, a vast silence fell over the street and over the town. Then the sound of water could be heard.We looked at the river below, visible as a wide dark motion, flecked with evening shimmers. A denser, still darkness, far beyond, blurred the beginning of the other bank. By looking fixedly, though, we could see in the distance the blackish outline of a barge barely visible against the darkening sky. There were the steps down to the pier and we stopped and leaned against the railing. We leaned for a while. Then Will glanced up and over his shoulder. “Daddy’s at the café,” he said. And let that sink in.“It’s Friday,” he added. “He won’t be back till late.”As he said that, I was suddenly aware of the emptiness out on the river, the boats floating before us, the dew that would dampen the ground still hovering in the warm air, intensifying the silence and immobility in the space all around. As I looked ahead there wasn’t a sound from the town. Below there was the slap-slop of water against boats, now subsiding. Maybe just stand here. Just don’t say a word. Finally I said, “You about to get me in trouble.”“You already in trouble.”Then we turned and walked down the steps to the p...

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