Be cool. Be cool. Don’t lose it!
I turned around slowly and…no Stephanie. I only half-expected to see her anyway.
My next door neighbor was standing in front of her house calling to her son. He was at the top of the stairs tying his shoes in his Sunday best. I waved hello. She waved back.
“Come on, boy!”
It was similar but not quite Stephanie’s voice.
“I’m coming, Mama,” little man said.
She stormed away like she was going to leave him behind. I saw a single mother trying to be tough enough to raise a man. Little man ran down the stairs the way little kids do when they’ve faltered a few times but were determined to get this staircase thing right; holding on to the railing, his awkward growing legs galloping. Watching him, I was transported back to my childhood when tying my shoes and navigating staircases were considerable accomplishment. I felt those triumphs all over again, vicariously, through this boy. For a fraction of a second I imagined what it would be like to be his father, responsible for how he fared in this cruel world. A chill shot through me at the notion.
I looked around one last time, as if Stephanie might have been throwing her voice from behind a car, or a tree, or maybe hiding inside that blue recycling can like Oscar the Grouch. It took a few seconds to accept the fact that she wasn’t there.
It used to take minutes.
Coming in the front door of my apartment, I placed the groceries on the counter and pressed the play button on the voice mail machine:
…Kevin, pick it up! It’s me. Kevin…KEVIN…WHERE THE HELL YOU AT? I know you ain’t go out nowhere…and I know you ain’t sleep…Kevin? KEVIN! Fine…Call me when you get this, awight? Kevin? Kevin? Come on, Kevin, pick up. I know you dere…Is you mad at me? What I dun now?
Kim had exceeded the 1-minute time limit of an incoming message and the machine cut her off. I never heard her voice on the machine before. She knew my every move, not that there were many moves to know. My having been out was an aberration and I’d have to face that music later.
My apartment was a disaster area. The living room was filthy. The old beige Jennifer Convertible was dingy beyond restoration. Take-out I’d left on the coffee table was beginning to stink. Beer and wine bottles lined the mantelpiece. A thick coat of dust was on the TV screen. CDs and DVDs were scattered everywhere. The garbage was overflowing. The sink was full of dirty dishes. It looked like I’d had a party. I’ve been living here about 3 years and I could count the number of people who’d even seen the place on my hands; on one hand.
I put the groceries away and headed for the bedroom, which was a wreck as well. The bed was unmade and busy with clothes. I picked them all up in a bundle, dumped them on the clothes chair and dived into my queen-sized cherry sleigh bed, my pride and joy, my throne. I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
I woke up when the phone rang. The clock read 1:39pm. I grabbed the phone on the third ring. I could have crushed it.
“Kevin?” chimed Kim’s unmistakable voice.
“Who is this!” I snapped impatiently, just to let Kim know how I felt about being awakened. Perhaps pre-empt the interrogation that was due.
“It’s me! You still sleep? Don’t you know what time it is?”
I laid there with the phone leaning against my mouth.
“Where the hell wuz you at last night?”
“Out,” I grumbled.
“With some bitch, probably…”
“Probably,” I mumbled.
“Yeah…lemme catch you, nigga. Dat bitch gonna wish she was never borned!”
“She already does,” I sighed, regretting answering the phone.
“Is you planning on getting up any time soon?”
I looked at the clock, again. 1:40.
1:40! Oh shit!
“Damn…the Giants!” I grabbed the remote off of the nightstand and turned on the TV. Channel 2. A commercial. Okay. Get rid of Kim before the commercials are over.
“Where are you?” I asked.
“Why, want me to come over?”
Let’s try that again. “What are you doing later?”
“Why, want me to come over?”
I walked right into that one. A funny Budweiser commercial came on.
“You laughing at me?”
“Nah, it’s this commercial.”
“Fine, watch your fucking game!”
“Hey…Hey!” I was talking to Mr. Click, the mute. I hung up the phone, turning off the ringer with one hand, and raised the TV’s volume on the remote control with the other.
All right, The Giants!
I fell back asleep a few moments later.
I woke up shivering to a blaring television. I glanced at the clock: 5:09pm. Damn, I’d slept through the Giant’s game. I peeked out the window. It was dark already. I felt around the bed for the remote control and turned the TV off. Then, I just lied there a long time it seemed, entertaining my usual array of morbid thoughts. I’m too full of shit to act on any of them, too afraid to die; too afraid to even contemplate death longer than a few moments. I pushed myself up and out of the bed. I was hard as a rock, frozen stiff. Kim immediately came to mind. I wondered had she tried to call.
As I turned on the ringer on the phone, the phone started ranging…
“Well, hello to you.”
“Hey, Ma.” I said cheerfully, glad to hear her voice.
“Don’t feel obligated to call me,” she said.
“I was gonna call you when I finished cleaning up.”
“Sure you were.”
“I was, I swear…” I lied.
“Well, I’ve spared you the effort,” she said. “And, I cooked.”
Now, I was extremely glad to hear from her. “What did you make?”
“Some chicken and dumplings.”
First the guilt trip and then my favorite dish. Telltale signs: She wanted something. But for some chicken and dumplings she could have whatever she wanted.
“I’ll be over in a little while.”
“Really,” she said, probably surprised that she didn’t have to pull teeth. “And, are you bringing Kim?”
“Why,” I asked, almost afraid to hear the answer. Ma had never met Kim nor demonstrated any particular interest in meeting her. I’ve told her next to nothing about Kim. From time to time, I’d make little remarks like ‘Kim’s over’, or ‘Kim’s coming by’ mainly as evasive maneuvers, excuses for refusing her invitations. I should have never given her a name to work with, though. Giving Ma her name meant that Kim was acknowledgeable, gave her viability as a candidate for further consideration. This was not my intent. Nor did I intend to get the two of them in the same room. I may not have been up on the major holiday thing. But, I was definitely up on the Mama thing. You might as well be announcing your engagement if you bring a girl home to Mama.
“Well, you spent Christmas with the girl’s family, I figured…”
“…Maybe you’d want to let your Mother meet her.”
“You haven’t brought a single girl by here since Stephanie.”
“Aren’t you ever gonna give me some grandkids?”
“No, Ma.” What? Did she say grandkids? I couldn’t think straight when I spoke to Ma sometimes. I acted on instinct. Instinct ruled by my desire to avoid coming under her scrutiny. Instinct dominated by a posture of resist and retreat.
“Not anytime soon,” I revised. I didn’t want to curse myself. Maybe one day I would want to have some little tax deductions. Someone to carry on the Jackson name.
The Jackson name…
“You got Trevor’s kids,” I said. “Aren’t they enough?”
Trevor and I have different fathers and different last names. His was Palache. The only proof that we were brothers was our uncanny resemblance and Ma.
“I want some from you.”
“Yeah, and folks in Hades want ice water.”
The mention of Kim and grandkids in the same conversation made me take pause. My mind and body were suddenly under arrest. Perish the thought…
“Are you ashamed of me?” she asked.
“No, Ma, It’s not you I’m ashamed of,” I replied, before I could stop myself. I didn’t want to say that but I couldn’t let Ma dwell on my being ashamed of her for one second longer. It was the opposite of true. But, she knew that. She was just exercising her power over me.
“What? What’s wrong with her?”
“Nothing’s wrong with her,” I lied. I could never lie to my mother effectively. She knew me too well.
“What? Is she ugly?”
“No, Ma. Nothing is…”
“…wrong with her.”
“Of course, that’s it. You think the girl’s stupid. Your pompous self.”
“You’re wrong, Ma,” I said, but couldn’t give the words the resolution they would’ve needed to sway Ma once she knew she was right.
Then, the phone beeped. Call waiting.
“Hold a sec, Ma”, I said and mashed the flash button.
“It’s me.” Kim. Ma had conjured her up like a witch. Then again, it didn’t take much to conjure up Kim. That would be like paying homage to a shaman for bringing rain in the Amazon Rainforest.
“What’s up, Boo?”
“Oh, you up now!” Attitude.
“And you like hanging up on people.”
“Well, don’t be trying to treat me like no stepchild!”
“Where are you?”
“Cuz, I’m on the other line.”
“Oh, you got some other bitch on the phone?”
“You calling my mother a bitch,” I said, pretending to be upset. Anything to shut her up.
“Yo’ Mama? You lying!”
“Hold on!” I hollered and clicked back over.
“I’m still here!” More attitude.
“I’ll be over in a little while. Alone. Okay?”
“That was Kim, right?”
Ma was clairvoyant. Had this maternal extra sensory perception thing that I had long since ceased being amazed by. “I’m coming alone, Ma.”
“Kevin…Let me meet the girl.”
She’d used that tone. That I’m your Mama tone where ‘no’ would not be an acknowledged response. Say no, Kevin. Just say no.
“I gotta see if she wants to come,” I said instead.
“Of course she does. See y’all soon. Bye, now.”
I took a deep breath before I clicked back over.
“I was about to hang up!”
Don’t do it. Don’t even think about inviting her, I said to myself. It will be a catastrophe. You know it will. But, Ma was expecting the two of us and, short of a tragedy, that was that.
“What are you doing, tonight?”
“Can’t you just answer a fucking question for once?”
“Uh-uh, nigga, don’t get besides yo’ self! Make me hafta get medieval on yo’ ass.”
She was joking. I loved her sense of humor. What made it funnier is that I knew that she didn’t have a clue what medieval meant. Lately, though, she’d been getting a little testier and belligerent and I couldn’t understand why. Snapping at me for no apparent reason and hanging up on me at every opportunity. She used to be so sweet- my little Peanut Chew. What ever happened to that lovable hood-rat I’d met last year with the 18-carat heart and caps on her teeth to match?
“My mother invited us over for dinner.”
“I’m on my way.” Click!
She didn’t even ask what was for dinner, as if it mattered.
Kim arrived an hour later wearing bells, so to speak. I realized then that I’d only partially cleaned the living room. That rotted food aroma still lingered. I hated for her to see my place filthy. I’d spent most of that hour walking around the house in my boxers, procrastinating, foolishly hoping for some miracle to occur, like a freak Nor’easter or an ice storm.
Kim was all dressed up. Had on this form-fitting black wool skirt I’d never seen before, and a rich, purple wool cardigan sweater. (My favorite color, as she knew all to well.) Showing quite a bit of cleavage, of course. She’d been hiding that in mothballs somewhere, too. Or, maybe it was new. She had on some black stockings, thick as tights, and black pumps. She took off her black wool coat and placed it on the couch. Then she turned to look at me, a pirouette, her shoulder-length, natural, freshly permed hair swinging behind her, and smiled. The gold cap on her front tooth refracted the overhead light. It was the finest, or rather, the refinest, she’d ever looked. I knew better then to keep a compliment to myself with her.
“Looking sensational there.”
“I didn’t have time to get my nails did.”
“They look fine,” I said, without looking at them.
“And, you likes my skirt?”
“Yeah, I likes it,” I said, mocking her. A waste of breath, though. She never noticed. “Very sexy.”
“And I know you like my sweater… I buyed it the other day at Macy’s.”
You look fine, dammit. “It’s gorgeous.”
Her smile vanished. What was the problem now? She cleared her throat, purposefully, so I quickly scanned her person for something different. Anything to get this over with. Ah, new earrings. I guessed they were new. Or borrowed. She borrowed her sister’s stuff and vice versa.
“The earrings?” I didn’t want to form the sentence interrogatively but if they weren’t new then she’d start bitching about how I never paid her any mind.
She shook her head to make them wiggle. They were made of gold, of course, but very thin and long like golden shards hanging from her ears. They caught the light, as well.
“Very nice,” I said.
“Is they? I bought dem on sale at dat new mall downtown.”
Kimberly Payne. 26 years old, 5’9 (those pumps making her practically as tall as me), 135 well-proportioned pounds, with mouth-watering breasts that hollered hello, curvaceous hips she swayed like a pro, an ass that had it’s own agenda, and strong shapely legs that seemed to go on forever. She had the body of a Jet Magazine beauty of the week. She was that girl at the club that all the guys bought drinks for and tried to get with. Had one of those gullible looking faces that made a man liable to explode in his pants. Her facial expression was her only physical drawback, though. She generally kept her face contorted in a peculiar way. Almost like she was unsure what it ought to be doing, so it seemed to be doing several things at once: Smiling, frowning, straining, like if she was moving her bowels. However, once it settled into a static form she was a breathtaking sight. When I walked down the street with her, I was the envy of every man we passed. It wasn’t a bad feeling, at that. One look and they could see I had my way with her. And, what a way! She just exuded sexual enthusiasm. Like a moveable orgasm. Lust incarnate. A Dorothy Dandridge for the new millennium.
But, Kim didn’t want to be seen as a sex symbol. Sure, she wanted to turn me on. She was turning me on now, wearing the fuck out of that outfit. But, I’d gotten to know her well over the past year. Sure, she looked stunning. Her family and friends told her that she should go into modeling. And, she’d tried it a few times but the camera didn’t show her any love. And, that’s all Kim really wanted I’d learned. She just wanted to be loved. She wasn’t some attention junkie trying to break necks and cause car crashes. A matter of fact she was embarrassed to wear outfits that made her stand out. What she wanted was my adoration and respect, my attention, not everyone else’s. She wanted me to see her as more than a pretty piece of ass. There were no mixed messages from her. I think that’s what I dug about her from jump. She wore her intentions, her emotions, on her sleeve.
She’d been studying me as well. Learning my ways and moods, my interests and irks. She’s done things that frankly shocked me. For instance, this one time about a month ago we’d been pillow-talking. She loved that stuff. I could do without it but from time to time I’d indulge her. I’d told her about this song that I loved back when I was kid. It was slow jam. Mr. Magic used to play it all the time on his show on WHBI. I couldn’t remember the name of it so I’d sang/hummed a few bars from it. I told her that they never played it on the radio anymore, and that I’d been looking for it for years. She’d said she ain’t never heard it. Anyway, a month later, I get a package in the mail. When I saw Kim’s crazy chicken scratch penmanship on the package I thought that she’d gone Kaczynski on me. I opened it, cautiously, not sure what to expect. Wrapped in some fancy tissue paper, I found a Mahogany card (she’d taken the time to find a black greeting card) that said something sweetly afrocentric to the effect of you’re always in my thoughts. Beneath the card was a CD by a group I vaguely remembered whose one-hit wonder was the song I’d been trying to find. Talk about a man thrown for a loop. I played the song all day long thinking how wonderful Kim was for doing this for me, how people can be so thoughtful and generous, and how scary it was to be in her heart and mind all the time.
But, her acts of kindness and thoughtfulness weren’t enough to cancel out her conspicuous drawback.
Her attitude I could live with, her temper tantrums, her hood-rat mentality, her gold tooth and Timberland boots, her twisted family and raunchy friends, her jealousy and possessiveness. All of that I could withstand- hell, even appreciate at times.
But, the one thing that made her totally ineligible for any serious long-term consideration, the one thing that my mind could not endure about her, was her abuse of the English language. She took the language to a new low. Put a hurting on my ears every time she butchered it. It would be okay if she was bilingual. That is, could turn her jabberwocky on and off, like I could. It would even be okay if she was just using slang. Shit, slang is colorful. Black slang is a beautiful thing. Took this dead ass European language and injected it with an elixir of energy. It would even be okay, still, if her Ebonics (I hate that word) consisted merely of a lazy pronunciation of words, or even some grammatical shortcomings, like my own, admittedly.
But, Kim’s usage of the language demonstrated something far more alarming, far more intolerable. She was illiterate; sometimes throwing sentences together that broke every basic rule of the language. She was the female equivalent of one of those basketball players who never really paid attention in school but was prodigious on the court and thus was allowed to progress academically. And are always dying to have a sound clip end up on the news, embarrassing the hell out of the race. And, reporters love sticking microphones in the faces of the most illiterate ones. Like if there was some conspiracy to show the world that black folks achieve through talent, not intelligence.
It wasn’t that she was dumb. In fact, once translated into proper English, what she said was usually well thought out and replete with common sense. Which piqued my curiosity about Kim’s friends and family. Who are these so-called loved ones that allow her to move through the world this way? Did she run with an illiterate ilk? Was her family the root of her dysfunction? That’s why I’d spent Christmas in Fort Green projects where Kim lived.
Her mother seemed decent enough. Young, mid 40’s at best. She’d been drinking malt liquor that whole night but cooked a hell of a Christmas dinner. She spoke English as well as most uneducated black folks. Her two sisters were little fast-assed Hoochies. Both of them younger, both of them mothers themselves! They were too young to really judge. Her older brother wasn’t available for scrutiny. He was in prison for 2nd degree manslaughter! Beat to death an old boyfriend that had been abusing Kim, I had learned that Christmas day. Her little sisters bragging about their homicidal big brother over dinner. The mother glowing proudly at their depiction of how her son had avenged his sister. Kim looking on indifferently.
I have to say I was glad his ass was locked up.
At one point, her mother had pulled me aside, out of earshot, and said, “You don’t have to be afraid of my son…he won’t be home til next year.”
That was presumptuous of her, but maybe the fear I was feeling was written all over my face. I felt mildly relieved then that she was trying to make me feel more comfortable.
“But, you need to be afraid of me,” she’d added, “cuz if you hurt my baby…I’ll kill ya!”
She’d had the wrong idea.
I told her that Kim and I were just friends, but she just looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language, tilting her head sideways like some kind of maniac.
“Friends don’t fuck, smart-ass, and my baby ain’t no floozy. She don’t just fuck anybody so you best be getting that friendship bullshit outta your head.”
“No, you shut up and listen to me…My daughter ain’t brung a man home since that fool Jerome, rest in peace, and that was a lonnnng time ago.”
I Wonder why. She actually said a prayer for the victim of her son’s malice, just another justifiable homicide in da hood.
“Coming here was my idea, Mrs. Payne. I wanted to meet Kim’s family. Meet the woman who raised such a beautiful creature.”
Mrs. Payne had smiled at that, and I thought we’d made some leeway towards civility. Then her smile started fading fast.
“Don’t try to gas me! Kim told me all about you. Said you had a way with words.” Then, fury overtook her disposition for a moment and I knew without a degree in genealogy that homicidal tendencies were genetic. “Well, you mind my words, boy! That creature in there better stay beautiful or yo’ ass is mine!”
Although she was a little more direct than I was accustomed to, I was moved by her fierce protectiveness of Kim. But, the educational gap was still mysterious.
Kim has held the same job for years. She worked at a day-care center in Fort Green. She was great with the kids I noticed the few times I’d gone by there. They loved her to death. If I had kids I would want someone like Kim, not necessarily teaching them English, but looking after them. One time when we’d first started seeing each other, I picked her up early to take her out to dinner. To my amazement, the children had all ganged up to hug her before she left, two and three at a time, several weeping at her departure. I was so moved I’d almost gotten weepy myself.
I’d never asked Kim directly about her impediment. I couldn’t find the wording. Um, Kim Honey, how did you become an imbecile? Kim, do you have any idea how fucked up your English is? Do you even aspire to speak the language properly? But, she had to be aware of the disparity between her speech and the speech of others. Maybe she simply didn’t care, so why should I? Through Kim I have learned something interesting about the world. It’s not always what’s in your head or how well you can verbally express what’s in your head, but what’s in your heart. And Kim has a heart as big as Brooklyn. The world definitely needed people like Kim. I was just pretty certain I needed more.
So, I let the issue lie. There was nothing I could do about it. Maybe her mother had drunk too much alcohol while Kim was in her womb. Maybe Kim had eaten those lead-based project paint chips as a child and it damaged her brain or maybe she fell out of the crib one too many times. Ma told me I used to fall out of the crib all the damn time, that’s why my heads so big. It’s kind of sad, though because otherwise she’s definitely marriage material. She’s going to make someone a really decent wife someday; maybe some hearing-impaired person, but definitely not me.
While I dressed in the bedroom, I watched Kim sitting in the living room looking around at the accumulated mess in disgust. Then, she stood up and started pacing about anxiously, fiddling with things she’d seen many times before as if she were seeing them for the first time. She was nervous, I realized. I’d never seen her nervous about anything. She opened an enclosure on my wall unit and started sifting through some of the bills and junk mail I kept in there.
I trusted Kim, to an extent. She had a different ethical code, though- one that included values that I found disturbing at times. She had a penchant for going through my stuff. When I called her on it, one day catching her in the act of going through my dresser drawers, she’d said, “I was looking for something.” She hadn’t even been aware that she was committing a condemnable act. “But, that’s my personal, private shit, Honey. Nothing in there belongs to you,” I’d said, miffed by her insensibility. But, this behavior wasn’t an aberration I’d come to learn. This was her ethical code. I fuck you therefore your business is my business, or something to that effect.
When she bent over to look through my DVDs I instantly got hard. Kim could excite me effortlessly. Just thinking about her body does it for me.
“Come here Peanut Chew.”
“No. Get dressed,” Kim commanded. “We can get to that later.”
The phone rang, then, startling me. Before I could answer it I heard Kim saying, “Hello.” She’d answered the phone in the living room.
Oh, Hellll no!
“Hello…hello! Who the fuck is this?”
I reached over and grabbed the phone by my bed ready to cuss Kim out for once again infringing upon my privacy. I listened to the silence coming from the caller’s end, the faint, shallow breathing. Someone was there…
“Better get yo own nigga, bitch,” Kim yelled. “This one is mine!” And she slammed down the phone in both the caller’s and my ear.
I glanced in the living room at Kim. She’d returned to perusing through my shit. If the caller had troubled her you wouldn’t know it to look at her.
During the cab ride over to Ma’s house, I sat there thinking about what I would and wouldn’t say and do that night. It was a waste of time. My mother would see right through everything, and Kim would surely provoke me to say more than I intended to. She excelled at that. Then, it occurred to me that maybe…just maybe…this was an opportunity. Yeah…I’d let Ma chase Kim away. Surely, if she didn’t like Kim, she’d make it plain. She couldn’t help it. And, if I knew my mother, she wouldn’t like her. She’d want her son to be with a woman who was at least his intellectual equal. Someone who would compliment and challenge her son. Someone who’d teach her grandchildren socially acceptable values and how to properly conjugate the verb ‘to be’.
Before I could ring the bell, Ma opened the door. One look at Kim and her face turned to stone.
“Something wrong, Ma?” I asked, sort of hopefully.
A moment passed before she snapped out of it and the emotion I was accustomed to returned with an explosion of joy. I wondered what had happened. It was probably something spiritual if I knew Ma.
“No, everything’s fine, come on in.”
Ma was dressed in her house clothes. She always did unless she was going out in the street or out on the town. Her house clothes would appear very extravagant to people unaccustomed to my mother’s style. It was always something of African origin or design. That night, it was a wrap around skirt with a matching blouse and a geles binding her dreads together; probably made from some material she bought at the African Street Festival. Ma was very handy with a sewing machine, an accomplished seamstress. Sometimes she’d sell her creations but mostly it was a labor of love. She made most of her wardrobe. Never have to worry about finding what you want in your size…she’d say.
She gave me a big hug and a kiss on the lips. Then, held me away from her, clasped in her powerful grasp. I’d always go limp as a rag doll when she did this and she knew it. Like a cat when lifted up it by its mane. She looked deep in my eyes, reading me no doubt. Then, she produced a divine smile and took a deep breath, inhaling me. A whiff of my soul, perhaps. She’s so dramatic…
Then, she turned to Kim.
“So, you’re the young lady I hear so little about,” Ma said, appraising her artfully from head to toe.
“Kimberly Payne, I’d like you to meet…” I gestured towards Ma, not knowing what to call her. She had several names…
“Evangeline Jackson,” Ma said. “And, I’m so pleased to finally meet you.”
So, it’s Evangeline, this time. When she’d met Stephanie, it was Khadijah, her African moniker…
“…But, call me Khadijah, dear. That’s what my friends call me.”
“It’s a pleazure to meetcha, too,” Kim said with an ostentatious politeness. “That’s a real pretty dress, Miss Khadijah. Did you make it?”
“This old thing?” Ma said, humbly checking herself out like if she’d been unaware of her attire.
Let the games begin…
“It’s really nice. I bought my mama one just like that. I wish I knowed you before.”
Then they both turned my way.
“What?” I yelped.
“I feel the same way,” Ma said. “My son’s been keeping you all to himself but we’re gonna fix that tonight! Come on in and have a seat.”
Ma was the master of pleasantries. There was some subtle politics involved in introductions that were lost on me. Ma used them to gather information. Later on she’ll say something like ‘You see how she asked me did I make my own clothes. That means…’ whatever it’s gonna mean. She knew people. Ma knew a great deal.
The house was spotless, of course. Ma was always ready for company. Never knew when she would have some. Her friends came to her house like she was the center of the universe. The couch, I noticed, she’d reupholstered with a new print. She’d taught that old dog a lot of new tricks over the years. She wasn’t into throwing things away. She was the opposite. She collected, preserved, renovated, and refurbished things that other people threw away. The house was decorated entirely by items she either made or bought at a flea market, antique store, thrift shop or the Salvation Army. She’d even pick up things people left on the sidewalk, and if it were too heavy for her to tote she’d go as far as to wake me from my precious slumber to go wrestle with someone’s refuge. Hurry up before someone takes it was her battle cry. In fact, that very same couch was on the street some ten years ago. She’d recruited Trevor and me to save it. We practically had to snatch it from the mouth of a garbage truck.
None of this trash collecting was out of necessity, though. The woman had money. No, this was her style. Kind of a compulsion, I guess. And, she never ceased to amaze anyone that had had the pleasure of coming into her home. Of course growing up in it was like growing up in a museum, and my friends called her an African bag lady. I’ve had many a fight over some particularly cruel Mama jokes. Kids on the block used to tease me about her dreadlocks, too. Say she was too lazy to comb her hair so it knotted up. ‘Those some long ass naps!’ one guy used to say. Another used to say she’d wake up in the morning, look in the mirror with a comb in hand, then say, ‘Ah, fuck it!’ and toss the comb away. Twenty-five years later and everybody and their mothers have dreadlocks. Go figure…
On the coffee table was a picture of me at, what, 7 years old. I haven’t changed a lick. Kim grabbed the picture and looked at it, then looked at me, then back at it, then back at me, then back at…
“Ma?” I called into the kitchen. I had to look away. Kim was doing that cutesy retarded thing she does. It worked well in the bedroom but in the outside world, and with that shit-taking grin, she looked Mongoloid.
Ma was in the kitchen, clearly visible from the living room the way her house was situated. She was warming up the food.
She had a way with certain words. ‘Honey’ was one of them. The word generated from her heart.
I didn’t know what to ask her, so I said, “I like what you’ve done with the couch.”
She turned around at that. Oh, oh.
“Really,” she said, directing her stare towards Kim. Kim was looking at the pictures on the end table. There was a picture of Trevor and his sweet and fortunately estranged wife, and their two brats. All huddled together looking angry. It was the only picture she had of all of them together. I took the photograph a couple of years ago. I thought it captured the essence of their union. I like Trevor’s wife, a delightful, warm-hearted woman. Too bad she married an incorrigible asshole like my brother.
“It’s been that way for about six months,” Ma said.
“No way,” I said.
She looked deeply injured before she turned back to the stove. The fabric looked new. But, I would never make comments like that. I wasn’t one for paying attention to details when it came to Ma. You could get lost in all her detailing. It was Kim who drove me to distraction, caused me to make, offhand, a comment like that.
“This your brother, Trevor?”
“Yeah, that’s him,” I said. I didn’t have anything nice to add, so I said nothing. Then it occurred to me that I didn’t even have a picture of my own brother on display in my house. I wondered if Ma caught the implication.
“That’s just how I picture him.”
Ma glanced over at me with a raised eyebrow.
Yeah, she caught it.
“What did Kevin tell you about Trevor?”
Kim looked at me awkwardly, obviously unsure of what to say. I tried to recall what I’d told her about Trevor but I couldn’t think of anything.
“Nothin’ really. Just dat dey doesn’t get along dat much.”
“The two of them are about as different as two people can be,” Ma said intently. Her intent was beyond me, though. “Kevin likes to pretend he hates him. But, deep down, he really wishes he could be more like him. Don’t you, Honey?”
“What?” I yelped.
I didn’t like Ma’s tone. Didn’t like the tone or the direction of the conversation. Way too amiable, and out of line with my objective.
“Have you heard from him?” I asked, realizing, too late, that Trevor called even less frequently than I did, if at all, and that that might be a source of unhappiness for Ma.
“You know your brother.” I could hear the plea in her voice. Please, Kevin, be nice.
“Dinner smells good, Miss Khadijah.”
Way to go, Kim. Did she perceive the tension that was building? Probably not.
“I hope you like it,” Ma said. “And, call me Khadijah. Drop all this Miss stuff.”
“Oh no, I couldn’t do that!” Kim said, aghast. “My Mama didn’t raise us dat way. She say always treat your elders wit’ respect.”
Did she raise y’all to go through people’s private shit or to kill your sister’s boyfriends? I wanted to ask. But, I didn’t. And, what was up with this baby doll persona? It was starting to get on my nerves. It was like she knew she had to win my mother over, and felt that by acting like some kind of angel she would. Man, was she barking up the wrong tree. Ma will see through it with a swiftness…
“Sounds like she did a good job with you,” Ma said.
Yeah, say that shit now.
Now, the tablecloth was definitely new. But, I didn’t say so. Ma sat across from Kim, and I was in the middle. Kim closed her eyes, clasped her hands and bent her head. Ma spotted it and joined in. Oh, God. Kim was pouring it on, now. She went to church, but she never pulled this prayer crap before, unless she’d done it in her mind. And, Ma…with her pagan, idol worshipping, livestock sacrificing, polytheistic self- she had to be kidding! I watched them until they were done, resisting the urge to start eating while they were praying. Kim said, “Amen,” and Ma echoed it. She glanced over at me and smirked. Ma wasn’t one for frontin’ for folk. What was up with her?
“So, Ma, are you holyrollin’ again?” I asked sarcastically. Ma used to be a devout Christian when I was kid but had gone through several cults and religions, including Buddhism and Catholicism, before finding a spiritual home in Yoruba.
“Nothing’s wrong with giving thanks to the creator for our blessings, Kevin. You should try it. Or, do you still think you’re God?”
Now why did she go there? Because you took her there, asshole. Shut up and eat.
I needed to get on Ma’s good side, needed her as an ally. Kim was into her plate, champing away, with this thoughtful grin on her face.
“Dis is deeelicious, Miss Khadijah.”
“Thanks,” Ma said. “It is Kevin’s favorite.”
“Fo’ real?” Kim said, looking at me. Then she turned all serious and looked at Ma. “Miss Khadijah, can I ax you somethin’?”
Oh, hell. Here we go.
“Sure, Honey. What’s on your mind?”
All eager to please. Calling her ‘Honey’, already.
“Well, it’s Kevin. I knowed him fo’ a year, and I can’t figger him out.”
Ma leaned in at that, giving Kim her undivided. I have to admit I was curious too, but endeavored to conceal it. Kim was gonna dig herself a hole, I was certain of it. I sucked the chicken off of a bone, audibly. Licking my fingers. She’d outdone herself, again. The dinner was delicious. She’d used Pillsbury biscuit dough for the dumplings, which tasted better than plain flour dough dumplings. She’d steamed some broccoli and carrots, and made some cornbread, too, with the creamed corn in the batter- the way I loved it. God, she spoiled me sometimes. She’d even made a pitcher of fresh-squeezed lemonade. I poured myself another glass. I hadn’t had a home cooked meal in some time.
“Like last week, I axes him about you. Tol’ him I wants to meet you and he say ‘my Mama ain’t trying to meet nobody.‘ Say you had enough friends…”
I stopped chewing at that. If I’d been sitting closer to her I would have pinched her, but hard. I could kick her from where I sat… Breathe, relax, breathe, relax. What the hell was she up to?
“…then, tonight, he say you invitin’ us for dinner. So I knowed he musta been lying about what he said you said. And, he always doing stuff like dat. Be saying one thing then he be sayin’ another thing, and I can’t never figure him out. Like how his house be. One night I come dere and duh place be spic and span. Look like it ain’t never been dirty. Then, anothuh time I come dere, like tonight, matter a fact, and duh place look like a tornado done blowed thru it. Like it ain’t nevuer been cleant befo’. I say tuh myself, I say ‘what the fu.., hell?’ Ya know? So, I wanted to ax you if he always was like dat or is dis cuz a me?”
I looked at Ma, trying not to smirk. I had to see her reaction. If that monologue didn’t illustrate my qualm with Kim, nothing would. Ma just nodded her head.
Evangeline Jackson, the former editor of Imani News, retired teacher of language arts, fluent in Kiswahili and French, and, of course English, and presently volunteering at an adult literacy program…
“I’d have to say it’s because of you, darling.”
Kim’s face dropped. She wasn’t expecting Ma to say that. Want to speak frankly? Well, you came to the right place. I continued eating my food before it got cold, satisfied that the evening would end as I’d anticipated it would.
“My son has a great heart, Kim. A great heart. He’s a loyal, sensitive, loving man. And bright as they come. I know. I raised him that way.”
You tell her Ma.
“But, he has a lot of his father in him. Some stuff I’m not particularly proud of, I have to say.”
I froze. Where was she going with this? I started to protest but I had a bone sticking out of my mouth. I took it out and used it to point at Kim, the outsider.
“Uh, Ma? I think you’re giving a little more information than she asked for. I think the stuff about my father is on a need to know basis.”
Ma sucked her teeth.
“Yuh see! He nevuh wants me to know nothin’ about him. Wants to keep me in the dark about everything going on wit’ him, all duh time.” She turned her attention to me and said, “What is you afraida?”
“I don’t want to talk to you about that,” I said, finally putting the bone down. “What…you think you can offer me something useful?”
Kim nodded her head, solemnly. I shook mine, then looked at Ma. She was pretending to mind her own business.
“We all got fathers, Baby,” Kim cried. “And, if your father anything like my father, you wuz better off wit’out him.”
Now, she was using the voice. Baby! Sugarcoating her words, something she never did. Evidently, Ma was infecting Kim with her viral sentimentality.
“Amen to that,” Ma concurred.
“I seriously doubt that your father is anything like my father,” I said. I didn’t know anything about Kim’s father except that he wasn’t in the picture anymore. She never mentioned him. There was no mention by her family at Christmas, no photo of him in an ornate frame on a mantelpiece. Nothing to indicate that her family had ever been anything but matriarchal. And, what a matriarch! But, on second thought, I didn’t know shit about my father, either.
“What you trying tuh say? You trying tuh diss my father?”
“I don’t think he meant any disrespect to your father, Kim.”
Kim turned to Ma. “Den, what his problem is?”
Ma gave Kim that Ruby Dee look of hers, real hard and thoughtful, like she was about to tell her the meaning of life itself. So dramatic. Then her face softened. She looked at me and said, “It’s really not my place to say.”
Thanks a lot. Shit, she’d piqued my curiosity, too. I didn’t presume to know exactly what she would say. I never knew what oracle she was going to come up with next. Whenever Ma made that face it usually preceded some profound insight, or at the very least something useful- not that I’ve put all of it to use over my lifetime. After a while it pretty much went in one ear and out the other. The worst thing about having a medium for a mother was the bombardment of wisdom, like working in a candy store taking the fringe of free sweets for granted.
Kim said, “Miss Khadijah. I wanted to meet you becuz I…I love Kevin, and I wanted to meet the woman dat made duh man I love.”
I gazed at Kim, speechless. She gazed right back, unflinchingly. This was a new development. Actually, that’s not true. For some time I could tell she was feeling something strong, but I thought it was more an emotional disturbance than love. Some need my presence met. I doubted that she loved me or even understood what love was. Not that I was an authority. Tameeka had asked me earlier about love. Now, I wondered why she had. What was it about me that inspired love?
“I thought dat maybe if I talked to you, you could help me unnerstan’ why…why he don’t love me back.”
Kim’s eyes filled with tears. That made two women in not even 24 hours brought to tears. What the hell was wrong with these women? Or, was it me? I never asked for Kim’s love. Never told her I loved her. Never even discussed it with her, at length. How could anyone give their heart over so easily?
“I feel I’m uh a fool for fallin’ for him. I mean, he nice to me, most the time. But, he never treat me like I’m the only one. Not dat I think he be doggin’ me. He problee ain’t, but I don’t put dat by no man. Not after what I done been through.
“When I first met him he wuz sad all the time. And I usetuh make him feel better. I knowed it was some other woman done dogged him out. He still sad, but not like before. Now, he just mean. I know it still cuz uh that girl, so I never say nuthin. Everybody gotta go through dat sometime. I figger she fuck up, I luck up, excuze my French.
“I mean, he good to me, and he good lookin’, and he got a good job and dress so fine. And he duh smartest man I ever knowed. Got this way with words that be havin’ my head spinnin’. But, I like it, cuz he make me think about things I never thought about befo’. Like um… like when dey first started fixin’ up Fort Green where I lives, in the projects, dey started puttin’ in grass and plantin’ trees and new swings and slides for the kids and dey be all dese cops everywhere now, and stuff. He says it because they…um…they trying to make it better for the white folks and I said he crazy, ain’t no white folks moving in Fort Green. He said ‘look over there’ and pointed to these big ole’ office buildings they built up ‘cross the street. And, I said, ‘Yeah, and…’ and he said…um, he said, ‘you think they gonna be comin’ all the way from Long Island when they can live right here? You just watch!’ And, I thought he was trippin’ but don’t you know a white woman just moved in my building? I swear tuh God! This Chinese man and woman, too. So, now, all day, I be looking around for changin’ things, and stuff, cuz that’s where I work with my kids in the day-care center. I take them to the park when it’s nice, and I see all these new stores and coffee shops and these nice bars, and stuff. Things I problee never woulda notice before. That’s what your son do to me. He…um…he make me open my eyes, ya know? That’s why I love him. He make me feel better about myself.
“Like when we go out, he hold my hand, and tell me I’m the finest thing he ever saw. He take me everywhere, to the movies and to nice restaurants, and be holding doors for me and helping me with my coat, like uh real gentleman. I can tell he raised good. If that bit…girl can’t see him for the special man he is, then somethin’ must be wrong wiff her.
“So, my stupid self, I get all open for him. Get used to him treating me good, thinking he ‘preciate me the same way I ‘preciates him. But he don’t. I call him dis morning to tell him about dis dream I had about us, cuz he always be having bad dreams and wake up all flustered and pissed off, screaming and all. And I figger that whatever he be dreaming about must be pretty bad, but he never tell me about the bad ones. Say he forgot it already. And I don’t know if it true or uh lie, cuz I forget a lot uh my dreams, too. But I remember this one and it was a good one and I wanted to tell him all about it so he can know dat dreams can be good things, ya know? But he get all crabby and dissed me for a damn football game. So, I figger he don’t know how I feel, or don’t care how I feel.”
I started feeling guilty halfway through her speech. I snatched my attention from Kim and looked at my mother. I understood what Kim had said. That is, I understood her particular linguistics, having listened to her ramblings for months, but I wondered what my mother gathered from her speech. Ma looked like she’d understood every word, inflection, feeling, and even what wasn’t said, what lurked between the lines of her murky plea. Ma had a way of conveying comprehension that was uncanny. I wish I had that expression in my repertoire. That would alleviate a lot of the redundancies of my life. People thinking they’ve gone over my head because my facial expression for lack of interest must be terribly similar to what people denote as a lack of understanding.
Ma’s eyes exuded disappointment. Probably wondering why I hadn’t talked to her about the dreams. She saw herself as a dream specialist, a holdover from her tarot card/crystal ball period, I figured. Thought most of life’s problems could be resolved through careful examination of the dreamscape. I didn’t buy it, though. My dreams were my penance, and that’s all. A subconscious manifestation of my guilt and anger and the longing in my heart for Stephanie is all. At least that’s what my therapist had suggested reinforcing my own conclusions. And, that was all I needed: Professional concurrence. I didn’t need Ma to tell me that the motorcycles and the tractor trailers in my dreams represented a self-destructive desire to escape the symmetry of the web of self-denial and deceit I’d forged, or some creepy shit like that. I’d be afraid to go to sleep. Afraid I might lose the desire to ever wake up again.
Say something, Ma. But, she wouldn’t say anything.
Her silence was worse than anything she could’ve possibly said. I could feel myself tensing up, struggling to keep them chicken & dumplings down. I thought about all the years she was there for me. Doting, nurturing, defending me against all comers. She was my champion. Time after time, she proved herself to be my emissary of conscientiousness and truth. She brought the world to me through her selflessness and generosity. Her sole purpose in life was to see me to fruition, and to set me loose on the world as her gift to God for His gift to her. I felt myself getting weaker, teary. Don’t cry, Man.
These same feelings of guilt and unworthiness are why I’d gotten involved with Kim in the first place, wasn’t it? I was on the rebound in the worst way. In order to counteract this poison called Stephanie I’d prescribed myself an antidote called Kim. Kim was the antithesis of Stephanie, I thought. My theory was that if I found a woman with qualities opposite those of Stephanie then I could crowd thoughts of her from the forefront to the recesses of my mind. And, as ill conceived as this theory was, it had actually worked like a charm, for a while. Kim was the perfect distraction. Her whole style confronted me with new challenges. Challenges that left me euphoric with my capacity to enlighten and bring pleasure to another. I started to believe that the healing had begun- that there was hope for me, yet. But, as time marched on, I came to understand that I was only deluding myself with Kim. That my prescription wasn’t an antidote, but that I’d merely weaned myself off of one poison onto another.
But, how was I supposed to get through this thing? Time wasn’t helping. Therapy had offered some interesting insights but nothing practical except how to breathe to relieve anxiety and anger. I’d paid $100 a week, and all I could do was keep from kicking someone’s ass who probably needed it. And, that’s only if I remember to use it. I’d nearly gotten my ass whipped the night before. What if Curtis hadn’t recognized me? Or, was a stranger? I’d probably be dead in the basement of The Scene.
Ma wanted to know where she’d gone wrong, if her face was any indication. But she hadn’t. There’s no way she could have foreseen or anticipated all that I would have to go through. No way. I had to learn it on my own. On the streets where the teachers don’t carry rulers, they have guns. And, where your Mama can’t save your ass, you gotta save it yourself. And, where being a man isn’t defined by how sensitive you are to a woman’s needs and feelings, but by how desensitized you can become to life’s emotional intricacies. Because, it’s the involvement in such where you need that indifferent objectivity to navigate. Otherwise, you get bogged down and distracted, and that’s when you’re vulnerable. And, a man can’t afford to be vulnerable. But, Ma wouldn’t know that, faced with the task of raising two boys into something I suspect she’d come to despise: namely, men.
“Don’t blame yourself, Ma,” I said. “You did the best you could. And, like Kim said, you raised me good. And, I think you’re right. If anybody’s to blame, here…It is my father.”
I watched TV while Ma and Kim were chatting it up over the dishes. Look at them. All chummy. Ma was really pouring it all. I surfed around trying to find something on TV to distract myself from the spectacle- their giggling, and what not. A game was on ESPN. A good match up. Pittsburgh and somebody. I couldn’t concentrate. Kim let out a whoop. Ma cackled. Heh heh Heh heh heh. The way she laughed when she was tickled to the bone. Shrill enough to shatter a glass. Joy was in the house. Great.
“That was some good cookin’, Miss Khadijah.”
I voiced my approval as well. Nobody does dumplings like Ma. The three of us had moved into the living room and Ma had cracked open a bottle of wine.
“Thank you, Honey. And thanks for helping me with the dishes,” she said, cutting her eyes at me. “Do you cook?”
“Sometimes. Kevin likes it.”
“Kevin loves to eat. When he was a kid he used to sit in the kitchen with me while I cooked. Couldn’t wait til I called him. He had to watch. Then, when I’d ask him to help me…Chop some onions maybe. Here he goes: ‘I can’t do it. I’m allergic to onions, Ma. They make my eyes burn.'”
Kim was cracking up, genuinely.
“Boy loved to eat, never wanted to help with preparations.”
But, that’s how I learned to cook. She was candy coating the story, though. She used to make me help her, forced me to learn how to cook. Especially after I told her that cooking was woman’s work. Hell, whenever I turned on the TV all the women were in aprons in the kitchen. Ma made me wear an apron after that and I hated her for it, but after a while she didn’t even have to remind me to put it on.
But, what was up with the you’re one of the family now stories. Making Kim feel welcomed and whatnot when she was on her way out. I was getting the impression that Ma actually liked her. As a person, that was feasible. She did have a certain earthy charm and vulnerability. But, as a mate for her son? As a parent for her grandchildren? That, I couldn’t see. It was time to put Ma on the spot since she wasn’t going there voluntarily.
“So, Ma, what do you think of my Peanut Chew?” I asked, slipping my arm around Kim, the biggest faux-smile I could muster. Kim tried to smile herself. Nervous about Ma’s response, no doubt.
“Oh, I like her. I like her a lot.”
Oh, HELL no! “MA!” I yelled before I could stop myself…
Kim looked as if this was the best news she’d ever heard. Like all she’d been lacking was Ma’s endorsement, and now that she had it everything would be just perfect. She sprung up from the couch, practically diving on Ma, catching her off guard, and hugged her hard. Over Kim’s shoulder I could see my mother’s face, shocked by this sudden embrace. Her eyes wide, looking at me. Then they warmed over and closed, and her embrace grew stronger. The daughter she never had.
Well, that’s just great. They can be the best of friends for all I cared. They can go shopping together and dress up fucking Barbie dolls if they wanted. Ma could go hang in Fort Green Projects with Kim’s family and learn how to play spin the forty-ounce with her mother. And, give her little sisters prenatal advice. And attend the welcome home party of my would-be murderer…cuz I was so out of there! Out of that doomed relationship and out of Ma’s house, too.
I stood up, guzzled down the remainder of the wine in my glass and chimed it on the glass surface of the coffee table. That got their attention. They loosed each other slowly, like lovers.
“Ma, I gotta get an early start tomorrow.”
“Me too,” Kim said, brushing the wrinkles out of her new clothes. Damn, she looked lovely, almost luminous. Maybe I was being a little hasty. No. Maybe. Her breast bounced around in her sweater as she buttoned it up. I felt the creature stir in my pants.
“Well, it’s been a pleasure having you both.”
Savor it, baby. I grabbed Kim’s coat off the coat rack, and held it for her to walk in to, all gentlemanly, opened the door, holding it for her, all gentlemanly, like I was raised. Turned to my mother and said, “I love you, Ma. Never change.”
“I hadn’t planned on it,” she replied, a sparkle in her eyes.
Coming soon: Chapter 4: The Haitian Sensation