Jeffra Hays’ Cocoa Almond Darling (Smashwords 2011, 126 pages) is the story of Millicent Randolph, survivor of a bad marriage and starting over in tough circumstances. These include finding a place to live and a job. She finds work in a sewing shop and enjoys a brief, happy relationship with her employer, in which she becomes pregnant although he is married. Her difficulties are then resumed through a long, turbulent aftermath to this affair. The turmoil continues following the birth of her child and on up to this daughter’s marriage and birth of her own daughters, when Milly becomes a grandmother.
Milly, a white woman, suffers from self-doubt, guilt, and even a temporary hatred for the black man she has fallen in love with, whom she continually refers to as “the Master.” He is a master tailor who has not only given her a job but taught her the tailoring business at a desperate time of her life, having left an abusive husband. The Master H.D. Benton does not abuse her. He is kind and generous, as well as an expert, and part of the pleasure of Cocoa Almond Darling is its description of the sewing business from an insider’s point of view. Very quickly, at age 32—whereas he seems about 50—Milly has fallen for him. Cocoa almonds are a special, ritualistic enjoyment continuing throughout the story, especially appearing when they are most in love.
This story is intense in the way a private diary, with intricate and copious detail, might be intense in exploring Milly’s tribulations and what seems to be her ultimate triumph as the novel ends. The reader steps into Milly’s world, and that world is dramatic and intriguing. The story is also occasionally confusing, partly due to the way the novel is framed. It begins with Milly as a senior looking back on what has dominated her life since age 32. As narrator she uses present tense, with the opening pages revealing her as a somewhat sour and irritable old lady. The story of her involvement with H.D. Benton, the tailor, then emerges as the main narrative, told in past tense.
Overall this story embraces approximately twenty five years, and at the beginning fluctuates between the old Milly and the young Milly falling desperately in love. The complication then grows, somewhat ominously, following the inception of her extra-marital love affair. A relatively short time of working for the tailor plus being his lover leads on not only to her pregnancy but her necessarily leaving him—or his in a sense dismissing her. The problem lies in his already being married to a woman who may have a kind of Alzheimer’s disease and mental peculiarity. In one of Milly’s rare hardhearted moments toward him she supposes there have been many Millys for him, and probably other offspring as well, although this fear is not substantiated. She names her child Nicky.
As half-white and half-black, Nicky bonds with her father in a way that seems to exclude Milly, as one part of Milly’s problem. Her agony appears to be a combination of guilt and inadequacy. Several times she wishes Mr. Benton’s wife would die so that Benton and she could be together. She will refer to herself as “criminal” for this kind of thinking. Interestingly, her own mother may have some of the same symptoms as Mrs. Benton, or perhaps, being house-bound, her mother’s condition is just a foreshadowing of what Milly herself could become in terms of migraine headaches and withdrawn behavior.
Repeatedly, to her daughter’s disappointment, and despite both daughter and father pleading with her, Milly refuses to attend important occasions, such as Nicky’s receiving an award, her graduation, and even her wedding. She misleads that she will attend, then with migraine coming on backs away. As this behavior continues through many years, Milly, additional to being on the path her mother has taken, also seems headed in the direction of Benton’s wife—toward mental illness.
Her situation grows increasingly complex, including when Mrs. Benton does die—to the joyous reaction of Nicky, who has, as with her own mother, been wishing the wife dead so that her mother and father could at last be together. But the tailor at this point is unable to respond to Milly as he once had. The “wanting” behavior, meaning sexual contact, is now only Milly’s. It’s clear his love, although possibly only physical desire for Milly in her view, was deep and prolonged for Mrs. Benton, puzzling as that may be to Milly. His wife’s death leaves him sad and different. Once again Milly is rebuffed and headed back into her isolation. At this point the narrative strikes a deep, poignant note.
The following passage indicates some of Milly’s anguish, related to whether she will attend her own daughter’s wedding:
“Daddy told me. You said you were coming.”
God hears everything. I prayed to Him. Don’t listen, I prayed, Stop me from thinking what I’m thinking. God can do anything. He can listen to my prayers without hearing my thoughts. I could never tell Nicky. Not going was all I could do to show Daddy. Show him what? she’ll ask. That he is better than me, Nicky. Isn’t that what you wanted. I had to let him go.
“Mommy? What happened?”
I could not ask Nicky. I could not ask God. What does she mean when she says, I’m black? She never says, I’m black and white. She has his eyes but she has my teeth. She isn’t black the way he is, or as white as I am. Why must she be black? I am sure I know. I am not demented. The whole world sees her as some shade of black. I assume—no, I am sure. Master is right. But what about me? Can’t I see her as some shade of white? Can’t she? What does she see when she sees me? Just, Mommy? I know what Master sees. I’ve known for too long. I did what a Mommy is supposed to do. I’m tired. She needs her black Daddy (location 2634 of 2638)
As Milly grows older, with her daughter’s becoming a woman getting married and having her own children, the Master remains unavailable to her and her agony increases. The migraines are persistent, her consultations with God increase, her isolation and refusal to join activities that Nicky pleads for suggest some kind of mental breakdown. She herself refers to her behavior as “cracked.”
The reader is immersed in Milly’s quandary as unfulfilled lover and mother, not merely separating from the father but also being drawn away from her precious love-child. This gradual estrangement is due to the child’s being half-brown and half-white, with suggestions the father’s knowledge of race problems makes him a superior parent. Milly is tough in many ways, resilient and courageous, but the combination of alienation, guilt, and self-doubt increasingly lead her toward isolation..
But that is not to happen as the ending swerves back from this direction to a much happier resolution. At last Nicky and her husband manage to put father and mother together, complete with cocoa almonds, and the two come to a reconciliation. They both admit their love for each other, and that it has never died. They speak of their love in the past tense, but the context of this meeting, its warmth, indicates their feelings are yet very strong, and at this moment, at the ending of the story, reviving. Along with a certain tough and jocular way of expressing herself throughout the novel, Millie here is a match for “the Master” and the story ends indicating their romance can now, at long last, continue more hopefully.
A strong story creates a world into which a reader becomes immersed and swept along with compelling characters and ideas. Milly, the Master, and Nicky are strong characters in Cocoa Almond Darling, and the writing is engaging and lucid. There is some confusion, however, with the words ending Part III: “I have not seen Master since.” These words occur prior to story’s end, five years forward from this moment. She has been visiting the Master’s place, meeting his son’s wife, sitting on a swing with him while they discuss Nicky. Once again she has refused a prolonged visit and returned home, alone. Perhaps the sense of these words is “I did not see the Master for a long time after this” because the story ends with a further encounter, in which the two apparently become reconciled.
At the beginning of the narrative, present tense is used by the narrator for her reminiscences so that the reading moves within an ongoing present along with details of the past. As the past comes to dominate, the reader may anticipate returning to the present sense in which the story begins. As mentioned earlier, in the opening Milly is a somewhat bitter old lady. This narrative framework from present to past builds suspense over the outcome. In a colossal irony will she deteriorate toward the sad state of Mrs. Benton? Or will there be some kind of breakthrough with her lover?
So the words “I have not seen Master since” which end Part III, in present tense, suggest the relationship is over, and possibly Milly’s mental health will further decline. But the words are not accurate, given further developments and the ending, which (narrated in past tense) shows their reconciliation. Perhaps the reconciliation needs to be in present tense to bring the account full circle from its beginning, and resolve this confusion.
Nevertheless, the finale is a tribute to Milly’s brave struggle, and a satisfying resolution for the reader. As with throughout the account, it emphasizes the human and the real, and the possibility of winning over, or at least ameliorating, the tribulations of ordinary people:
I had my hand on the doorknob. I don’t know how he did it. No, no, I do. His belly took up next to no room. He hugged me, my coat, my umbrella and my purse. Thank Heaven I had wrapped those two needles. He hugged me and my stupid junk, for I don’t know how long. We heard Nicky, then we saw her peeking through the window.
He whispered, “I loved you, Milly. Did you know that?”
I was smiling at my Nicky when I whispered back,”Yes,” I said. “Yes, Master.”
–Peter Bollington, author of Mechanic of Fortune 2012