Cocoa Almond Darling (Kindle, 126 pages), by Jeffra Hays, is a rather intense, deliberately-paced story about a tailor Mr. Benton, his assistant Milly, and their daughter Nicky. The main action seems to be set in the 1960s, give or take a decade, and the story is told entirely from Milly’s perspective. The novel’s limited first-person narration is masterfully rendered by Hays, who allows the reader to experience a degree of empathy not possible except through the lens of skillful realist fiction. The language of the novel is plain. The narrator is not a gifted poet, nor especially clever or funny. She is not given to much analysis, but she does pay attention to detail, and she is sometimes capable of rather admirable self-awareness and honesty. “I suppose, subconsciously, I wore brand new sneakers to impress that brand new doctor…”
There is a sense that Milly is not telling her story for anyone. The reader seems to be situated entirely in her mind—not in a stream of consciousness—rather the reader is overhearing conventional narration. The author does not lay out a scene, describe a face or a piece of furniture unless Milly is interacting with it and it enters her mind. There is no implied author peeking through anywhere, nor implied reader, just Milly, with all her faults.
When a ringing phone gets the old woman, who “still sleeps nude,” out of bed, she avoids standing near the window—“in my sagging glory”—even though it is dark and there is no one to see her. As an elderly, tired woman, Milly seems determined, if not content, to live alone and unbothered. She loves her daughter and grandchildren, but is not particularly willing to be inconvenienced by birthday parties and daily phone calls. Milly is unapologetically aware that she is a crabby old woman and the reader rather likes her for this.
After a tiresome trip to the doctor, with a debilitating migraine coming on, Milly falls asleep and the narrative flashes back some fifty years to when she had just left her husband, Gene, because he was not interested in her sexually the way she was interested in him. She boards a bus with enough money to pay rent for some number of months and not much else. She tries her luck at a few sweatshops, and is subjected to sexual harassment of the worst kind: pants unzipping and dropping to the floor during an interview or on payday. Milly reacts with more annoyance than outrage, and doesn’t complain or bewail her plight. She moves on to the next sweatshop, dry cleaner, or tailor, doggedly looking for work. Throughout this part of the story there is no author judging. Milly simply suffers and moves on. The larger social commentary is entirely absent. This story is about the ways things are, for Milly, not the way they should be. Milly herself expresses very little sense of what she may believe she is entitled to as a person. She only knows what she wants and what she will not tolerate. The authorial touch here is virtually non-existent, exactly perfect for realist fiction. Though this is not an epistolary novel, Richardson’s Pamela comes to mind.
Milly finds work as an assistant for a “master tailor,” Mr. Benton, who is married to an invalid. Milly has more or less begged Mr. Benton to give her a chance. If she fails at this job, she does not have any other acceptable options. Vividly depicting Milly’s apprehension on her first day of work, Hays writes,
…I lay both right sleeves side by side, and wondered how to start. After threading my needle and knotting, I used a six-inch ruler to measure. I stuck the needle into the sleeve, exactly one-quarter inch from the seam. Then I realized I had not measured how far up from the bottom edge of the sleeve, so I measured that. I stuck a pin to mark where a quarter inch crossed an inch and a quarter. ….I knew I had to sew from outside the sleeve, without catching the lining. I put the coat on my lap. I stuck the needle in just deep enough to grab the wool, then out, then into the first button’s first hole. The button slid down the twist, onto the sleeve. I checked. Any which way I moved the button, it sat too close to the seam. My ears started burning. I looked up as I pulled the button off. Master was busy stitching. I tried again. After cutting my thread and reknotting, I stuck the needle an extra quarter inch away from my first knot and let the button slide. It landed a perfect quarter-inch from the seam. I looked up. Master’s eyes were down. He was still working black wool. I measured, from the bottom of the sleeve, up to the button. One was a quarter inch wrong.
Later, the master tailor asks her to watch him work.
“Young lady, you were guessing. Don’t start with the button. Start with the sleeve.” Master pulled a basting needle from his shirt. He threaded it with white and knotted it. “Use a guide line. Do you see what I’m doing”? He was basting a white line, parallel to the seam but a half-inch away. He moved forward a little, and pushed my knees. “Do you understand what I’m doing?”
“Yes.” I smelled chocolate on his breath.
“The button has a center. The center sits inside the holes. That center sits on the basting line but the holes don’t. It’s the edge of the button that sits a quarter-inch from the seam. Do you understand?”
“I didn’t, but I do now.”
After some time, Mr. Benton’s behavior becomes undeniably inappropriate, as he presses his leg or his fat warm belly against her while teaching her a new skill. However, unlike those of her former employers, his advances succeed. They fall in love. Milly becomes pregnant and leaves him. Four years later, when their daughter Nicky starts asking about her father, Milly decides to reappear and offers to share custody of their daughter. Mr. Benton’s invalid wife, meanwhile, is still incoherent, but eventually she dies.
Surprisingly (to Nicky and possibly to Mr. Benton), Milly does not move in with them to begin a new family. Milly appears to be afraid of sexual rejection and her relationship with Mr. Benton is awkward. She still refers to him as “Master,” somewhat playfully–he is a black man–and/or partly out of deference, it seems, for his expertise as a master tailor.
In the second half of the narrative, describing Milly and Master sharing custody of Nicky, the narrator’s attention to detail flags. The pace quickens, covering years instead of hours. Action and dialog sometimes occur in a vacuum, and the reader can no longer see what is happening. Consequently, the reader begins to feel less empathy for Milly as she refuses to participate in her daughter’s important life events (swimming meets, graduation, marriage). Hays is less able to show what it is like to be Milly in this part of the narrative. In the end, however, as the story catches up to the old woman, sensory detail returns, and the novel resolves satisfactorily and convincingly with Milly and Master finally acknowledging and affirming their love for each other.
Tension of the latter half of the narrative centers around the fact that Milly is white and Master is black, or actually “brown,” as Milly puts it. With understatement characteristic of the novel’s style, this fact does not get more than a passing mention until after Milly becomes pregnant. Here again Hays’ care shows in the way she avoids the larger social perspective and focuses exclusively on Milly’s thoughts.
Hays’s quiet subject is rather well chosen for the genre. There isn’t much here in the way of linguistic fireworks, but the drama is intense in a Jamesian sense. The reader will appreciate the opportunity to experience what it is like to be Milly trying to support herself, fulfill her needs, and take care of her responsibilities. The amount of detail dedicated to the art of sewing is the surprise pleasure of this book. Most authors would probably think it risky to detail what might be considered boring action—sewing on a button properly or cutting a pant leg straight—but Hays takes that risk and pulls it off. Deep respect is paid to the knowledge, skill and hard work necessary to do a simple thing well.
He was sitting at his machine when he said, “Come here. Let me show you something.” I stood beside him. He was balding on top. He handed me a dark gray coat he had just finished. “The finest worsted,” he said, “a pleasure just to touch it. Do you feel that? Go on, feel it. It’s butter in your hands. And the coat is light and balanced. Let me show you something.” He took it back and got up to drape it on the figure. I learned, never say dummy. “Do you see how those sleeves hang? Forward with a natural curve, just like a man’s arm. I’ll show you that when you’re ready….
The Master’s sewing seems to represent Hays’ writing. Not showy, lyrical, or allusive, it is fine, well-crafted realist fiction.
–VN Alexander, author of Naked Singularity, 2003