I schlepped back to my desk with Kim’s words weighing heavily on me. She’d illustrated my reason for avoiding romantic entanglements: My fucked up heart was still ailing. For a moment I missed her. I missed her sorely like she’d gone somewhere far away. This longing passed through me like a fleeting emotion. All that remained behind, caught in the mesh of my fucked up heart, was the security I felt when she was near. Like a song, somehow I knew it would always linger with me.
“So, I guess it’s you and I,” said Angela.
I started when I heard her voice. She was standing over me as I tried to pull myself together.
“Um, yeah, it looks that way,” I replied once I remembered what she was talking about.
“Oh, we’re gonna have a ball. You’ll see.”
“Whatever,” I said, as a chill shot through me. Minneapolis: The city reverted to the Ice Age every winter. And, that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the asses I would be expected to kiss while I was there- TV and radio producers and personalities, newspaper reporters, urging them, begging them, to come to the event or interview my people. Meanwhile pampering and kowtowing to that limp dick jerk Mary Vogel hired as a spokesperson.
My colleagues looked at these opportunities to jet set as fringes. It made them feel like important representatives of an important company performing important tasks. But, important to whom?
When I first started in public relations, it was an arbitrary decision inspired more by the fact that I was having a hard time deciding what to do with my life and that I had a degree in English and Communications than by anything else. For a while I thought of it as a viable career. I fell into the lull and grind of the job. I liked some of the people at the company and they liked me, for the most part. And, my clients weren’t all assholes. Some were pretty cool. I liked the self-empowerment the position fostered and I loved the traveling, going places I never would have otherwise gone and being pleasantly surprised by what those places had to offer. I especially loved the frequent flyer miles I racked up. I loved the fine dining and the fine hotels, and the fine women. There was nothing but women in my office, in this business, mostly Sex and the City prototypes, and I’d had some good times. And, the upward mobility didn’t hurt any. I’d been promoted 3 times in three years: from Account Coordinator, to Assistant Account Executive, to Account Executive, to Senior Account Executive, the tier I resided at presently. Account Supervisor, Mary’s position, wasn’t a wet dream, either, if I applied myself. Cohen PR had been very good to me, indeed. I looked forward to coming to work and stayed late often without even being aware of it.
I don’t know why, but, ever since I broke up with Stephanie the job had gradually lost its appeal and became merely the means by which my bills are paid timely.
I decided at that moment that there was no way in hell that I was going to Minneapolis. No more extras…Nothing above and beyond the call of duty…the bear minimum was all they were going to get out of me from that moment until I moved on. I hated the idea of reneging on my pledge to Mary to go, but she’d coerced me, hadn’t she? That ax she ground sharp enough to split hairs translated any request she made into a decree. Well, there won’t be anymore of that, I’d decided, for about the ninetieth time in the past two years. It had become practically a daily affirmation. But, i knew full and damn well I’d be on that plane…I’m such a pussy sometimes!
Wednesday night, Nubia was the place to be. There was a line, of course, but I knew one of the bouncers. And, there he was, Tislam, at the door, dressed in the customary black outfit, looking menacing. I made him from up the block. Tislam was my homeboy from High School- One of the Gods.
I liked to walk from the back of the line to the front. That’s why I had my cab pull up on 6th Avenue rather than on 24th Street in front of the club. That way I could humbly strut by everyone, peripherally scoping out the cuties, and more importantly, letting them check me out, as I sauntered to the front, praying that Tislam could give me the royal treatment. A couple of times, Tislam had cried management is watching or something to that effect. And, I would just leave. I couldn’t play myself and walk back to the end of the line. I’d be a laughing stock.
Tislam turned around and yelled, “Peace to the God!” loud enough to wake the dead.
I felt all the eyes on the line spying me, this Five Percenter with the Brooks Brothers suit on and wing tips? I could almost feel their bewilderment. Have the Five Percent gone corporate? GOD, inc. is in da house. I extended my hand and Tislam promptly crushed it. Now, I knew how Kim had felt the other night.
“Yo, God. How you be?” Tislam bellowed.
“All wise and civilized, Gee.”
“You’ve been MIA for a minute, now. What’s the science?”
“Just been putting the devil’s spawn through college with my tireless ingenuity,” I said. “Using that trick knowledge to fortify a sound foundation for my future seeds, you know what I’m saying?”
“Ummmm…That’s peace God,” Tislam said, picking at his nappy beard. “What’s up with that Wisdom Cipher Man you was with? That slim thing. I forgot her name.”
I almost refreshed his memory and said her name aloud but I caught myself.
“Yo, God, she was weak and wicked despite my best efforts to raise her to her fullest equality. You know how some of them weak ciphers are. There’s just no civilizing them. Dig me? But, like the scriptures say, many shall come but few shall be chosen. So, what can I tell you? I had to eclipse that ass.”
Tislam was cracking up. This was the way we communicated with one another all during high school. The Five Percent had an esoteric lingo called Mathematics. It was amazing to me how much of it still applied to my life presently. How effortlessly I’d translated current events into ‘mathematical’ terminology. Eclipse? Actually, I had never used that before, but Tislam seemed to understand.
Had I really eclipsed her, or had my Sun supernova’d, shining super brightly and then vanishing, causing everything in my life to darken and obscure?
“So, what about you, God?” I asked to shift the focus. “What’s today’s reality?”
“Big Henry! You working, or what?” boomed a voice from the club’s doorway. It came from a little Italian guy in a sharkskin suit and moussed hair. He looked like a caricature of a movie Mafioso type, yet fierce and in control. Back in high school, Tislam had kicked anyone’s ass who’d had the temerity to call him Henry. I was surprised that Tislam allowed it, now. But, times change.
Last time I was here the club was owned by Master Zee, this Rap star that goes quadruple platinum just about every album, though I didn’t own nor did I know anyone else who owned a single CD of his. Now, it appeared, the club suffered from what a lot of seemingly successful black enterprises suffer- A black front with a white back, probably the Mob, by the looks of Tislam’s boss.
“Reality, God?” Tislam said. “Reality is I can’t wait for the expiration of the devil’s un-civilization.” He shot an icy glance over at his boss.
“I’m feeling you, bruh.” I said.
One of the Five Percent doctrines, adopted from the black Muslims, stated plainly that the expiration of the white man’s civilization was at hand. The doctrine didn’t specify exactly how this was supposed to happen. White folks certainly weren’t going to relinquish any of their power, not according to Niccolo Machiavellian, so I assumed they were all just going to die. It was supposed to have happened in 1964, before I was even born, but they were given a twenty-year grace period; Presumably, a time allotment for the Poor Righteous Teachers to gather their strength and numbers. I remember vividly on New Year’s eve of 1984, how Kwame and I waited for something to happen. It was a ridiculous notion but we were hopeful that something miraculous would occur. Like maybe the heads of white folks would begin exploding like in the movie ‘Scanners.’ Or, maybe their precious stock market would crash and they’d all start leaping to their death’s from the highest point they could reach. Or, maybe some virus that only attacked people who lacked melanin, or some recessive Caucasian gene, or some other substance exclusive to or lacked by white folks would render them helpless and spread death like a plague. But, nothing happened at the stroke of midnight or the rest of that year. 1984 came and went and with it went my poor righteous teaching days. That disappointment was just too great to ignore. I’ve been agnostic ever since.
“Is this a bad time?”
“Now Cipher, God. Just radiate here for a knowledge,” Tislam said. “When that Devil breaks out, I’ll slip you in.”
I drifted away from the entrance, a little, lit up a Black & Mild and leaned against a pole that supported the awnings. A few minutes later Tislam gestured for me to come, now. I crept in quickly. I was reaching for my wallet but the ultra-fine cashier just waved me to the security force. Unlike The Scene, they quickly wanded me with the medal detector, stamped my hand with the invisible ink, and then a cute hostess waved ceremoniously towards the vestibule of Nubia, as if to say You’ve arrived, baby.
And, that’s just how Nubia had made me feel at one time: Like I had arrived. It was the finest club Black New York had to offer. And, I was special, here. I didn’t have to wait or even pay this time. I was the ‘in’ in the in-crowd. I ostentatiously surveyed the scene. Feeling like I was the celebrity most of these folks came to party alongside. And, I felt their eyes upon me, sizing me up. Trying to remember what movie, sit-com, music video, or industry bash they’d seen me in or at. I had the kind of face that could easily be mistaken for someone important.
I suddenly remembered why I didn’t like nightclubs like Nubia. I would invariably fall into my old patterns of behavior. Pretentiousness; A sign that I wasn’t happy with who and where I was in life. If I had allowed myself to follow that course I knew exactly where it would’ve led. I’d have headed for the bar, pretending to be disinterested with the goings on like I owned the joint or was there just for business. I’d order a Vodka Martini or a finger of some top shelf scotch or cognac with a showy display of nonchalance. I’d allow the chicks that tended the barstools to get a good look at me and generally they would approach in that way that they do, which varied from chick to chick, but was obvious in any event, to strike up a conversation. And, I’d fall into the role of pursued with poise and class.
That’s just about how it had happened with Kim.
No, not tonight, I told myself. I would be me, through and through.
Nubia was a sight for sore eyes. Eyes sore from the onslaught of white I endured all day. It was the perfect contrast. I felt freed and relieved- nothing but beautiful Nubian people in my purview. I stood there relishing the moment. Good things like this never last long.
Nubians. I remember watching The Ten Commandments as a child, learning later in life that most of the people depicted in the film were actually black, from Egyptians to Hebrews. Moses and Pharaoh could have very well been played by Sidney Poitier and Moses Gunn. Watching it again with this new knowledge, I noticed that the only black folks in the film were the Nubians. They were a deep black, half-naked, and scene-stealing beautiful. As they were now.
Nubia was a converted Catholic Cathedral. It almost felt sacrilegious getting your groove on on what was once holy ground. Nubia’s patron saints didn’t seem to have a problem with it, though. Just like successful black churches, the place was always packed to capacity. But, unlike most Cathedrals, it didn’t make me feel small and insignificant. On the contrary, I felt larger than life. Looking up into its disturbingly high steeples, ornamented with the original moldings and artwork, inspired a feeling of freedom. It created the illusion that one had ascended to heaven to find that it was gloriously segregated. The Promised land.
The main bar was in the chapel and the people flowed in and out.
“Excuse me!” yelled a waitress in my ear, nearly knocking her tray and me over in the process of passing by. This was the place to be for waitresses, too. They probably make more money than I did. All of the waitresses were dimes, handpicked by somebody who favored dark-complected sisters over light-skinned chicks which was a huge switch from the last time I was here. I headed for the main bar. A nice central location, where I would usually find Kwame with some girl’s ear lobe attached to his lips.
There were stained glass windows galore in the smoke-filled chapel. As I gazed at the elaborate artwork on the glass my nostrils detected the distinct aroma of some good sensimila. I looked around for the source but it seemed to come from several directions. There were lounge chairs and sofas all around a circular bar with several bartenders racing around within the enclosure fulfilling drink orders that came from every direction. Music poured down from overhead speakers. Love is the message had me doing my little two-step. There wasn’t much to it, but when done properly it was the epitome of cool. Still, I felt self conscious, which meant I needed a drink. A few drinks…
Kwame was not at the bar. Instead, there were several women tending barstools, nursing drinks and looking bothered. The bothered look. It was a variation of the high hat. It was the look that superfly sisters took on after many years of sexual harassment. They strove for a permanent expression of “Nigga, pleeeezze.” If they smiled it was generally for other women or the male bartenders. They were mad open for bartenders. Bartenders made out like bandits. The superfly sisters didn’t appeal to me at all. They actually looked kind of sad and desperate. They definitely weren’t NBAs. NBAs were more substance than show.
I slipped between two bothered looking women who immediately sucked their teeth and rolled their eyes at me like I’d walked into the ladies room looking for a urinal with my dick hanging out. The bartender nodded at me. He’d been gaming on both women.
“Let me get an Absolut Martini, bruh,” I said. “Stirred, not shaken.”
I took my martini over to a stool away from them irritable chicks.
At the center of the bar was a circular wall of liquors and cash registers. I watched myself in the mirror behind the bar. I smiled, I grinned, I frowned, and then I made a very serious expression. It was me, all right. I could feel the muscles in my face following my commands in sync with what the mirror was displaying. Sometimes I wondered if mirrors were giving an accurate reflection. I was uncomfortable entrusting my self-image to a piece of glass. If the mirror was only reflecting a message my brain was sending to my mind, via my eyes, then could I unconsciously be distorting it? What if I was dependent upon other people for my true reflection? Then, someone tapped me on the back.
“Yeah, you still an ugly mofo.” It was unmistakably Kwame.
I spun around. “What’s up, Yo?” and gave him our traditional two-finger pound we’ve been doing since Jerome and Morris Day did it in “Purple Rain”.
“My blood pressure. You see the buffet up in this piece?” he asked, checking out several girls passing by smiling in his direction.
I was at a loss for words. I didn’t realize how long it had been since I last seen him, how affected my life had been by his absence, until now.
Kwame was my best friend since we were boys in da hood. But, over the years, as Kwame drifted one way and I the other, the priority of our friendship also drifted. Daily hanging out became weekly, which turned into monthly, and presently was every so often. Whenever either of us had the time. We tried to make Nubia the meeting place for a monthly get together but even that became an effort after a while. Well, at least it became so for Kwame. It had gotten to the point where I was hanging around hoping Kwame would show up rather than expecting him to. It was a waste of breath to reproach him about it. Certain of his emotions were sealed airtight. You could only hurt yourself trying to get at them.
He wasn’t one for acknowledging his accountability to our friendship. Our friendship was always one of those things that went without saying, flourished without effort. ‘It’s not the quantity, it’s the quality,’ Kwame had said one time when I riffed about his vanishing acts. And, true, we’ve always had rich moments whenever we hung out. I just missed the way it was back in the days when I would see him everyday. And, it seemed that everyday was richer.
“I met this cutie, today…” I said.
“…And you’re ready to have her babies, already,” Kwame said, looking at me like what a sap.
I always felt consistent around Kwame, like I was an individual with discernible, if not predictable, characteristics.
“She’s a fine ass NBA,” I added. “Even you’d be impressed,” which was a wild boast.
“NBA’s are overrated,” Kwame said pointedly. “Just chickenheads with dreads. What about Kim? Now, that girl is fine. What’s up with her?”
“Kim? She’s chillin’,” I said, still stuck on the chickenheads with dreads comment. He couldn’t mean that. “She came to my job today bugging out.”
“She’s not bugging out. She loves you.”
“How do you know?” I asked. “You don’t know her like that…”
“Man, she fell in love with you the night y’all met. I remember that shit.”
“I must’ve blocked it out.”
“I can tell she’s high maintenance, and she’s probably not a rocket scientist, but neither are you. At least you know she’ll be there for you when your needy ass needs something.”
His support of Kim was more disturbing than being thought of as needy. First Ma, and now Kwame. What was it about Kim that won supposedly intuitive people over?
“Not a rocket scientist is an understatement.”
“Rocket scientist are overrated, too,” Kwame said gesturing to the bartender. “You’re too hung up on them NBA’s. Always have been- that’s yo’ problem. They’re just women, you know. Got some of the same damn issues as Kim. They talk too much, everything is a goddamn debate. They got serious sexual traumas, rape, incest, bunch of ex’s that dogged them out. They all get Yeast infections and have genital herpes and vaginal dryness and…they’re all spendthrifts, cheesecake junkies pushing maximum density…”
“Maybe, but they’re a lot less painful on the ears,” I said, cutting him off. Kwame has this tendency to rant.
“Say what?” Kwame said sharply. “Damn Son. You uh fucking snob! What would you rather have: An NBA who has no idea how to maintain her locks or Kim?”
“Um…” I said, scratching my head like I had to think about it. Of course I’d take Kim in that scenario. I remember he’d told me about this NBA who used to leave cakes of crunchy dandruff on his satin sheets whenever she slept over.
“I don’t get it,” Kwame said, shaking his head like I was some kind of enigma. “Why the hell are you with Kim, now? What is it? The pussy? ”
“Nah,” I said, even though sex with Kim can be extraordinary at times. “It’s not that.”
“You gonna tell me, or do you even know?”
“I think, initially, it was about, you know, creating some distance between me and, you know, whatshername…”
“You’re talking about Stephanie?”
I nodded my head.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“What?” I yelped.
“Say her goddamn name!”
He sat there and stared at me for a solid thirty seconds. This was new.
“You never told me what happened between y’all.”
“Yes I did,” I said. “I told you she was, you know, doing her thing on the side.”
He did it again, stared at me.
“Cut that shit out!” I snapped.
“What did you do to her?” He asked me. “What are you punishing yourself for?”
“Let’s see now: You’re with a girl you clearly think is beneath you, and you’re afraid to say the name of a girl who clearly was beneath you.”
“Nobody’s beneath anybody here,” I said as I continued considering his statement. “Kim’s an imbecile and Stephanie’s a hoe. That’s it! There’s no secret squirrel shit here.”
“Uh-huh,” Kwame said, nodding his head over and over.
He was right, though. I hadn’t told him or anyone what happened between Stephanie and me. I hoped he would let me off the hook. I didn’t want to rehash those feelings at all. He had to know that, though. Kwame knew me better than anyone on the planet, except maybe Ma. And, even that was debatable. We sat there in silence for a hot minute. A pause for the cause, a pregnant silence. I could tell he was in deep thought. His brow furrowed and a vein, swelled with blood, protruded from his forehead.
“You know, this CHICK told me something that you might find useful,” Kwame said. “She said: ‘God don’t like people who think they’re too smart.’ It didn’t help me any but shit, I don’t believe in God, so who gives a damn what He likes.”
“You think I ran out and got religion since the last time we spoke?”
“Maybe not but you sure as hell should be looking into it. Some people need religion and yo ass is one of them. And, I mean that with all due respect.”
This fucking guy…
The bartender cleared his throat. Kwame eyed him hard before he ordered himself a Vodka Martini and another for me.
Several moments of girl ogling went by without a word. It reminded me of when we were kids and we’d play That’s my car! After a moment I couldn’t hold it anymore.
“Why the hell do you say that!” I shouted.
Kwame glanced at me as if to say glad you asked.
“Cuz religion’s in your blood,” he said didactically. “Look at your Moms. There never lived a more religified woman. And, remember how you were back when we were Gods? Shit, that speaks for itself! Now, I’m not saying you need to run out and find some goats to slaughter. Her Yoruba thing may be a little too heavy for you. But, like Minister Farrakhan said, you gotta find some way to worship.”
“I’ll take that under advisement,” I said, and I meant it. My therapist had hinted at the same thing. I looked around at the moldings of angels in the walls. Winged Caucasians with purely benevolent expressions. Organized religion. What a crock!
“You know, he was talking to you, too,” I said in my defense.
“I know,” Kwame said, lighting up like a man enlightened. “That’s why I’ve started my own religion, baby. I call it, Kwameism.”
“Kwameism?” Oh Geez…
“Hell yeah! Kwameism- has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, so does Davidian.”
“Oh, you got jokes!”
“I can see it now… FBI surrounds your compound with stormtroopers…then order is given: unleash hell!'”
“See…that’s why I hate to tell black people shit- They always quick to shoot it down. Negative ass motherfuckers like you!”
“My bad,” I said, sipping my drink. I hated negative people, too. “So, fine, tell me about this Kwameism.”
“What can I tell you? Just put yo’ dollars in my collection plate and I’m off to the Stuy to get this three-family Brownstone I got my eyes on.”
“So, you want to be a homeowner, now? In the name of religion?”
“Something like that,” he said. “I’m thinking about settling down. You know, under God, indivisible and all that till death do us part, shit.”
“Nah, I’m dead-ass serious!”
“A wife, couple of kids, mortgage, car note…That kinda settled down?”
“I was thinking more like 6 kids,” Kwame said.
I was blown away. This was the absolute last thing I thought would ever come out of Kwame’s mouth. Since…forever he’d advocated the bachelor life as the ideal life. He’d vehemently shoot down any suggestions I made to the contrary.
“This Kwameism sounds like some potent shit.”
“It’ll grab ya, that’s for damn sure,” he said with a wink. “Thing about it though, I’m missing a major ingredient.”
“What? Cyanide for the Kool-Aid?”
“That’s corny, son,” he chuckled.
“All right, seriously. Did someone abscond with the collection plate?”
“Picture that shit!”
“Then, what?” I asked, confounded. “You got your tubes tied? Some woman wised up and castrated your ass in your sleep? What?”
“That’s close,” Kwame laughed. “Damn Nigga, you acting like you on Jeopardy. Is it so hard to believe I don’t have a woman?”
“Well, yeah,” I gasped. I had to gather myself. “Damn, Kwame, you trying to tell me you ain’t got a dozen cuties lined up to be the next contestant on ‘The Ass is Right?'”
Kwame howled, laughing his ass off. He was probably a little tipsy.
“You know why I’m laughing?” Kwame said. “I just pictured myself all old and shit, looking like a black Bob Barker…yelling out ‘Sheneequa Nay Nay, come on down!'”
I started laughing, too. But, then, Kwame’s laughter began to sputter.
“Really, though,” he said. “Kwameism ain’t no joke! I don’t want to be some old sugar daddy hitting young girls off just for a taste. That shit sounds pathetic to me. I want grand kids. Sitting up on my lap, tugging at my long ass beard, trying to hustle me outta 100 bucks for a candy bar.”
“You gonna need some kids first,” I said, patronizing him a bit. I wasn’t buying this Michael Landon, Little House in Bed-Stuy bullshit. I knew Kwame too well. So, I played along, waiting for the punch line.
“That’s what I’m saying…”
“Then, you gotta live long enough to get old,” I added.
“That, too. That’s Kwameism. Living long enough to have grandkids, and all that stuff in between. Like finding a woman, and being a father, and…”
“You’re serious! You…a father?” He was going too far, now. Having kids was one thing, but raising kids?
“Yeah, man. Me!”
The word clung to my mind. Father. Fatherhood had always been a running joke between us. Kwame would say I was going to be the first to take the plunge, but I knew it would be Kwame. I knew because Kwame wasn’t keen on using condoms. Said it diminished the entire sex act. He would go as far as to fake using one. If the girl was insistent, he’d let her see him put it on and once his dick was out of sight he’d remove it. I told him he was a sick bastard and needed psychiatric help, but to no avail. He wasn’t about to let fear of death or venereal disease stand in the way of sexual gratification. He even went as far as to say that the thrill of not knowing whether or not the pussy was safe enhanced his pleasure. He had this morbid fascination with daring acts. When we were kids, he was the one who wanted to play ring-o-levio on the perilous rooftops of our neighborhood. He was the kind of guy who would play Russian Roulette if the pot was big enough. Kwame’s stance heretofore was: if his fate was to be done in via sex, or hustling, or any of his other vices or indulgences, then so be it. Fear wasn’t about to become the motivating factor in his life.
“Let’s grab a seat, man,” I said. “I need to sit down.”
“Them wing tips a little rough on your dogs, huh?”
“In more ways then one.”
Kwame was 6’3 and as virile as men come. A solid 220lbs of rugged good looks. He was tapioca tan, so light-skinned that a touch would leave a fingerprint, a slap in the face could be seen for days. He had reddish brown facial hair that grew at an accelerated rate without kink or nap. Even when we were teens and I was getting my first peach fuzz atop my upper lip and beneath my chin, Kwame already had a thick mustache, a full beard and sideburns that needed shaving regularly. He was going in liquor stores and ordering without a question asked. I don’t know what race besides black he has in his bloodstream but if I had to guess I would say there was definitely some Caucasian and possibly some Native American as well. His parents and grandparents were all black, though, so it must’ve happened way back when.
Kwame was always a disciplined individual, dedicated to the conditioning of his body. He kept it optimal through ascetic adherence to exercise. No weights, though. Strictly push ups, chin ups, crunches and swimming. Kept his body so evenly toned and cut that he looked like the product of selective breeding.
He was wearing one of his costumes, tonight. That’s what I called them. The eccentric buppie costume to be exact. Damn, he looked good. He’d picked the outfit out of GQ, no doubt. It was a black pinstriped suit, with a tie of brilliant crimson and gold. It radiated around his collar and poured down his chest like volcanic lava. The suit had a tailored drape to it, all the way down to his glimmering gator skin shoes.
His costumes were only props, though. Tools for the trade. He was a chameleon. Put a 10-gallon hat on him and he was cowboy, a Derby and he was Pimp, a smock and he was doctor… But let the truth be told- he was a hustler, plain and simple. He got money by hook or crook. In his early teens, it was from older women, looking for some young stud. He’d meander into their lives, swindle all he could, and then casually depart, often with invitations to return. When that got boring he figured out a new hustle. It was the late eighties, and gold jewelry was in high demand. So, Kwame came up with this idea. He went into the ‘slumming’ business. He’d go to Chinatown and buy gold plated jewelry by the pound and then he’d get 14k or 18k imprinted on the clasps, then head out of town for a few days. He, literally, made a fortune. He was still sitting on a nest egg from that bonanza. While I was in college sucking up that trick knowledge, Kwame was out in the world making his mark. Everyone thought he was a drug dealer except for the victims of his scams and me. Kwame would drive to places like Jersey and DC and North Carolina, wearing this humungous phony jewelry, and come home with thousands of dollars. He wasn’t afraid to roll up to a drug dealer in Baltimore or Raleigh, with a neck full of slum-gold ropes and a bag full of fool’s gold chains, or bracelets and bamboo earrings for their girls; nameplates with generic titles like “High Post” and “Fly Girl” and “Cash Money.” Not at all. The worst thing that could happen he figured was that he’d get robbed of a big bag of phony jewelry, which happened occasionally. But not often enough to deter him. He’d make two or three such trips on a monthly basis, and lived large the rest of the time, spending the bounty. Mostly on the two of us, and occasionally he’d splurge on some chick, only after he’d put away a percentage.
When the demand for gold chains began to dwindle, and after a serious near-death experience when he ran into a former customer in another town (he never went to the same place twice), he got into bootlegging. He’d bootleg anything imaginable. From Flavor-Flav neck clocks to Cabbage-Patch dolls, to pirate audio or video tapes- always the items in highest demand. Sometimes I would help him brainstorm the market for what was hot. His motto was only bootleg items that sell themselves. All he had to do was offer them. Half the time people knew they weren’t authentic and bought them anyway just for the sake of having a reasonable facsimile of the real product. Last time I checked he was Bootlegging DVDs, CD ROMs and music CDs and making another killing.
At one point, he had enticed me to join forces with him on his enterprising ventures, promising and delivering happy returns. The money was incredible! Often, our profits quadrupled our overhead. But, because of my education, I felt the whole scenario was a waste of my talents and intelligence. I didn’t spend four years in college to hustle Homey the clown dolls downtown Brooklyn. We were set up on Fulton Street where everybody in the borough came to shop, and every time I ran into someone I knew, which was daily, I was mildly embarrassed despite how lucrative the business was. And, since we were illegal vendors, we had to close up shop and run from cops at least once a day. So, I gave it up. Kwame must have felt I’d snubbed him but I couldn’t help it. That just wasn’t me.
Kwame would eventually get involved with some of America’s shadiest. He never told me the particulars for my own protection, he’d said. All he could say was that the money was proper and that these guys had things organized. I figured Kwame was smart enough to handle whatever came along. He always had. That is, until one day I got a phone call from Kwame saying that he was incarcerated. It was the call I dreaded.
The first time I went to see him on Riker’s Island and saw Kwame in a prison jumper, I had to fight back the tears. During that brief visit Kwame had rolled up his sleeve to reveal a long razor slash up his left arm. There was bravado in his smile as he displayed it- something I had never known Kwame to display. I knew from that smile that he was dying in there- from the inside out. On the way home, I…well, it was very long ride home.
When his 18-month bid was up, Kwame re-emerged on the scene vowing to always be a solo act, professionally and personally. He came out of jail with a paranoia that frightened me. Something had happened to him in there. Something he would never speak of. He was still Kwame, only darker. Dark Kwame… Despite his parole status, he was going to stick to hustling. Even marginal illegality was a parole violation, I had told him. But, he was convinced the only reason he’d gotten caught was because he tried to partner up with someone. He wouldn’t make that mistake again. I could never understand the criminal mind. I mean, even the idea of prison was enough to keep me straight as a fucking arrow, for the most part.
Kwame still had plenty of money stowed away somewhere. I figured he had at least six figures. Enough to live comfortably, by his standards. He’d bought a two-bedroom condo in Queens and leased a SUV. A nice one, too.
Then, late last year, the last time we’d had an extended conversation, Kwame had expressed his dissatisfaction. That hustling had lost its appeal. Perhaps this was the birth of Kwameism, this dissatisfaction. I felt the same way about public relations. And, thus, I began to feel the time was ripe for the two of us to go into business together- a legitimate enterprise. I’d been formulating a business plan ever since then.
I was nursing my 3rd vodka martini while Kwame was working on his 4th. I wasn’t saying much. I was just playing off of Kwame who was uncharacteristically chatty, breaking down Kwameism to its basic foundation: The future. It was refreshing, spiritually, to hear Kwame speak with a vision that wasn’t dominated by the acquisition of money or pussy. Evidently, Dark Kwame was a transitional persona, thank God.
Every so often I would take a quick look around. I wasn’t concerned about the eye candy, though. I was looking for Zola. It was pushing 8 o’clock.
“What’s on your mind, Sha? Wait, I know. That chick, right?”
“She was supposed to meet me here at seven,” I explained.
“Need some help getting her off your mind? Allow me.”
Kwame nodded his head towards two girls sitting at the bar, looking in our general direction. They weren’t looking bothered, either. Women never gave Kwame the high hat. They were smiling. Kind of cute, too. Part of me loved the fact that Kwame treated women so terribly. Occasionally I would encourage him. They shouldn’t be so superficial.
“You wanted distractions,” Kwame smiled. “There they are. Five minutes in the bathroom with one of them, and you’d be saying…What’s this chick’s name?”
“Zola. You’ll be like ‘Zola, who?'”
“I doubt it.”
Kwame had gotten this girl to blow both of us in the bathroom this one time and now he swore he could do it anytime he wanted to. I suspected he could but never put him up to it. I hardly wanted to do it that time. Something about strange women with their mouths on my dick made me feel leery. But, I’d gotten caught up in Kwame’s enthusiasm about it. She’d done me first and I had quite a time keeping an erection. What with Kwame waiting outside the stall, whistling ‘Blow the man down’, and the girl smelling of alcohol and sniffling like she’d had a cold or had been snorting coke. I kept thinking what if this bitch is high and goes into convulsions with my dick in her mouth? When I finally did cum, I’d done so mostly on my own. She’d started bitching about me taking so long.
“You still afraid some chick’s gonna bite your dick off?”
“I think it’s a rational fear.”
“You got issues, son.”
“And, I need a reminder, so thanks,” I said, downing the rest of my drink. “I just want something more meaningful than a blow job in a bathroom. Shit, I could get that from Kim.”
“Meaningful?” Kwame said quizzically. “You know this is a nightclub, right? This ain’t a real fucking church.”
“Nightclubs are for finding new pussy. Not wifey, motherfucker,” Kwame yelled so that these girls sitting near us, pretending not to be listening, had to turn around and play themselves. “If you marry a chick you met in a club you deserve to get bent!”
A chorus of teeth sucking, grunts and no he didn’t’s rose behind us.
“I met Kim here, remember?”
“Oh, that’s right. Nevermind,” he said like Emily Litella, that character Gilda Radner used to play on Saturday Night Live.
“You stupid,” I said, cracking up.
“I know what you mean, though. I’m just fucking with you,” Kwame continued. “You want someone inspiring, someone that brings out your best, right? Someone to share your life with, and your dreams, and your bed.”
I was about to say exactly when I realized that Kwame had to be patronizing me, again. Kwame simply didn’t and had never seen things that way. He’d never even talked that way before.
“Stop playing, man. You play too damn much”
“I’m serious. Like this Zola. You think she’s what you’ve been waiting for all your life, right? Like God directed this woman to you for a reason.”
He was starting to piss me off. Or, maybe it was the alcohol.
Kwame’s serious face exploded into laughter.
“Look at you. Looking like you want to assassinate me. After all we done been through. What’s up with you, man?”
“You called it before…These wing tips are mad rough on my dogs.”
“So, kick ’em off.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” I said. “You’ve always done whatever you wanted. That’s why I admire you.”
Kwame looked genuinely surprised.
“You admire me? Man, you better go look in the mirror, again. You’re doing it! You’re a legitimate role model.”
“Doing what? I ain’t doing nothing but wasting time. Anybody that looks up to me needs their head examined.”
“You’re the stupid one,” Kwame said. He was smiling as he said it, to lighten its impact. “And you underestimate yourself.”
I looked around, again. Not for Zola, though. I looked around at my people, my people, as Zora Neale Hurston would put it. Nubia was alive. The music wasn’t too loud in the chapel but the noise from a hundred conversations taking place gave the room a roar. I gazed into the faces of various people around me. And, one word popped into my mind: Microcosm. Nubia drew a cross section of black America. Every black person that had ever lived was represented there, in some way, shape or form. There was Malcolm X addressing a small group held rapt by his neo-logical speech. And, over there, W.E.B. Dubois was discussing the souls of niggas versus black folk with another group. There was Harriet Tubman telling some folks how she could guide them to freedom if they’d only get off of their lazy asses. There was Richard Pryor, high as a kite, with a group of people around him crying laughing. And, there was James Baldwin and Langston Hughes making eyes at one another while composing words that would influence the thinking of generations to come.
“I don’t think I underestimate anyone, especially my sorry ass.”
“There y’all are!” Cheryl was standing behind us glistening, fanning herself with an invite. In her other hand she dexterously held a bottle of Moet Chandon and a couple of glasses.
“What’s up, baby?” Kwame said.
“What’s up, yourself, with your fine behind?”
“Just doing my thing,” Kwame replied.
“Where’s Curtis?” I asked. “I know he’s the benefactor of that Champagne.”
“He’s around here somewhere,” she said, copping a squat between us. Her hips spread as she sat and pushed Kwame and I against either armrest of the couch. She giggled, slightly embarrassed by it.
“So, Mr. Kwame, where have you been hiding?” she said as she poured herself a glass. “My son wants a life-size Tickle-me Elmo. I told Kevin to tell you but he said your ass is impossible to catch up with.”
“I’m just holding it down the best I can,” Kwame said glancing over at me menacingly. “But, I’m outta the Elmo business, Boo. Can’t help you there.”
“You must be into something strong now, with your power suit on. Looking all legit. Don’t tell me you got a nine to five?” Cheryl said, looking like say it isn’t so?
“No girlfriends from work?” I injected in an effort to change the subject. Kwame didn’t like talking to women about his business. He had a different lie for each one. He shouldn’t have to waste one on Cheryl. Cheryl had pressed me one night about Kwame under the guise of hooking him up with one of her girlfriends. I knew it was because she was sweating him. Not that she would do him, but out of curiosity. He’s just the kind of guy she always wanted- A thuggish character with a seemingly endless supply of loot. It must have struck a jealousy chord because I told her of some of his illegitimate business dealings. I hadn’t thought much of it but now I felt like a gossip columnist.
“There was one here for a while but she had to cut out. You know those commuter types. ‘Oh, Cheryl, I’ve got to catch the 8:03 at Penn Station,'” she said, mocking her colleague, knowing good and damn well she envied her.
I started feeling that Vodka trying to find an exit.
“I’ll be back,” I said and made my way towards the Baptistery slash toilet.
As I stood at the urinal urinating I wondered what did God think of a place of worship being converted into a nightclub. It had to piss him off. It’s funny. I’ve never practiced Catholicism, Judaism or Christianity and yet, just from living in a hemisphere dominated by these religions I’ve acquired a respectful fear of them. I stood there with my dick in my hands afraid I would incur His wrath when the Judgment Day arrived for partaking of this sinful act.
As I exited the men’s room I noticed Curtis standing in front of the ladies room kicking it to a couple of cuties. Curtis must have felt the intensity of my stare because he turned around just then.
“What’s up, Shaquan?” He almost laughed my name.
The two girls gave me a quick once over and smiled approvingly.
I walked over to him and shook his hand. This time I was prepared for Curtis’ crushing grip with a reciprocal grasp of his own. Curtis nodded his acknowledgement, impressed. I wanted to ask Curtis about Cheryl and cock block him again. Since he’d managed to get her open, which, granted, wasn’t a difficult task, the least he could do was follow through until he left town. The fact that he was trying to line up some new ass in a high traffic area like the bathroom meant he was full of shit and not too bright at that. He obviously didn’t have any respect for Cheryl nor her friends.
“Having a good time?” I asked.
“Oh yeah. Nubia is the shit,” he said, then added, “By the way… Shaquan, this is Tina and Jeanette. They were in that last Master Zee video.”
They both made shallow smiles and plastic greetings- they were the kind of chicks that air kiss. Tina’s smile was wider than Jeanette’s. And, she must have been using Vaseline on her teeth to hold it so long.
“It’s nice meeting y’all,” I lied. “And Curtis…I’m sure I’ll see you later.”
By the time I got back to the couch Melanie and some guy had joined the party, seated on a couch across from Kwame and Cheryl. Cheryl had her legs crossed and her arms folded, her new weave cascading behind the back of the couch like a throw cloth. She looked like she was wondering where her athlete-on-the-rebound was.
“Hey Kevin.” Melanie said. “This is Mark. Mark…Kevin.”
“What’s up, yo?” Mark said.
I shook his hand and told him he was a lucky man to have a woman like Melanie. But, one good look at Mark and I knew it wasn’t luck at all. He was one of those swarthy, Lando Calrissian-looking mugs, with that type of hair that looked processed but somehow you knew it wasn’t processed, but the result of some Indian or Asian DNA; that shit that drives all the sisters crazy. Between him and Kwame, I felt like an also-ran.
“Don’t I know it,” he said.
Melanie flicked her silver-studded tongue at Mark like a lizard, winked and smiled.
“Oh boy,” Cheryl said.
“Don’t hate,” Melanie said. “Masturbate.”
Then Zola appeared like a mirage. I hopped up eagerly like I’d been sitting on a steaming radiator and introduced her to everybody. Zola responded to the attention like she was accustomed to it and well versed at handling it.
“Sorry I’m so late, Kevin. I had to take care of some stuff at the office that couldn’t wait.”
Before I could stop myself, I said, “Apology accepted, this time. But don’t make a habit of it.” I tried to cover it up with a smile while I kicked myself in the ass with a mental foot. How the hell did that get out of my mouth?
“Yes, sir!” Zola snapped and saluted as she took a seat across from me beside Melanie and Mark. Damn, I scared her away already.
“Kevin has this thing about tardy people,” Kwame said. It was true but I didn’t exactly like the fact that Kwame was broadcasting my personal business. This wasn’t the time, nor the place or company. Now, I knew how Kwame felt. I glanced over at him and nodded. Touche, motherfucker.
“He always screams on me when I’m late,” Cheryl added. “He says it shows a lack of respect for other people’s time; not to mention self-respect. But, personally, I just think he hates contemplating getting stood up.”
Zola laughed. Then everybody else joined in.
Fuck it! “You damn right!” I snapped. “If I can make every effort to be on time, then everybody can. I think black folks take this CPT shit too far.”
The laughter grew. I couldn’t tell if it was with me or at me. But, it was true. I did hate this Colored People’s Time bullshit. Fashionably late is one thing, but if you make a commitment you ought to keep it regardless of the color of your skin.
Cheryl was gagging with laughter when she said, “he bought me this Swatch watch for my birthday with these glow-in-the-dark numbers on it.”
“He bought me a Swatch, too,” Kwame said.
“My birthday’s coming up,” Zola said. “Tag Hauer for me, please.”
“Mark’s on that same shit,” Melanie said. “He blows up my pager then clocks how long it takes for me to call him back.”
“I’m feeling ya, Kev,” Mark said.
“The way I see it,” I said, “anything worth doing is worth doing on time.”
“Amen to that,” Mark said.
“Is that why you made me late to work this morning?” Zola asked. “I bet your butt got to work on time.”
“My bad,” I said. “Your drinks are on me for the night…are we even?”
“And, all I get is a daggone Swatch?” Cheryl asked. “And I’m supposed to be your best friend! Screw that, for my next birthday I want a Rolex.”
“I know where you can get a good deal,” Kwame said.
“Yeah, at Tiffany’s, knee grow. I don’t want no crap from a Nigerian on 5th Avenue.”
Melanie said to Mark, “I need a watch, too, Sweetie.”
“What you need is a celly that can get the signal underground,” Mark said, “cuz I’m about tired of hearing ‘I must’ve been in a tunnel or something’. That’s dat bullshit!”
A riotous laughter exploded from everyone. Glasses were filled, emptied, refilled and emptied again.
“Oh, there you are.” It was Curtis. He had a bottle of Moet under each bulging biceps.
Cheryl glared at him egregiously for a moment. Then she glanced at the Champagne bottles and her eyes softened.
“Everybody, this is Curtis. Curtis…Everybody,” she said, rudely.
Curtis placed the bottles on the table, introduced himself to everyone and grabbed a chair from nearby, placing it beside Kwame. Kwame switched seats with Cheryl so she could be closer to Curtis. Curtis grabbed a waitress passing by and requested some glasses and an ice bucket.
I was trying not to look at Zola. I didn’t want her to think I was sweating her. Every time I glanced her way she was staring right back at me, though, smiling unabashedly. I could see plainly that I was in a better standing than I thought.
Cheryl asked Curtis, on the down low, where had he been.
Curtis spoke to the group when he replied, “I ran into the club’s owner. Nice guy. He reminded me of my landlord over in Italy. Did you know…”
“…That this place is white owned,” I said, cutting him off. “Yeah, I thought as much. Italian dude, right?”
“Yeah…from Brooklyn. But his family is from Rome, not far from where I live,” Curtis said. “How’d you know?”
“Educated guess,” I said, wondering if Curtis was on the level or not. Those two video hoochies certainly weren’t from Rome. But, it had been a while since I’d seen him by the bathrooms. Maybe he’d run into the owner afterwards.
“I surprised the hell out of him when I started speaking Italian. Before I knew it we were Paisan,” Curtis said. Then, to Cheryl he said, “Sorry I took so long.”
Apparently Cheryl bought it. I could see the acceptance in her eyes. She must really like him. If he was lying he had some advanced skills.
“I spent the summer in Florence a few years ago,” Zola said. “I was in this student exchange program. What a beautiful city. Can’t say much for the rest of the country. Talk about a country full of itself. And, racist like you wouldn’t believe.”
I knew then that I could love Zola- an NBA with an edge.
Kwame said, under his breath, “You gee’d, Sha.”
I winked at him on the DL.
“I guess I don’t catch all of that,” Curtis said. “The people embrace me there.”
“Yeah, and you don’t hear them calling Kobe Bryant a nigga over here, either,” Mark said.
“It’s about the money, not the melanin,” Cheryl said, pouring herself another glass of Champagne.
“Yeah, as long as that money is lining white pockets,” Kwame said. “Try to get rich and keep the money in black hands. See where that’ll get you.”
Apparently Kwameism hadn’t shifted his stance on the sad state of internal affairs among black folks.
“That’s what I’m saying,” Mark said.
“Black people can’t stand each other,” Melanie said. “I know, I can’t stand them myself half the time.”
That bit of self-hatred earned her a kiss on the cheek from Mark.
“People are people,” Cheryl said. “Some black folks are just as hateful as some whites. And, all that hate ain’t gonna change things for the better. I figure we could all use some love. It’s the only thing…that there’s just… too little of.”
Cheryl had actually broken out into song. Drunk as hell. Or, maybe, she was falling in love herself, seeing the world through rosy lenses.
“Thank you Martha Luther King for that rendition,” Kwame said. “But you see where that got your boy Martin. I think that’s the problem with black folks- they wanna be loved by white folks. Embraced by people that look down on you. Fuck that!”
“I didn’t say I wanted them to embrace me. They just do.”
Curtis was taking it personally. But, Kwame had dished it that way, hadn’t he?
“My great grandfather was Italian,” Zola chimed in. “While I was over there I went to meet some of his family. Trying to embrace my European heritage, you see. Hoping it would embrace me back. Well, it didn’t. Oh, they treated me well enough. Told me how they could see my great grandfather in me. But, they never really let me in, and I didn’t get the feeling they wanted me to come back, either. I was an embarrassment for them, I tell you. I only spent one weekend with those…people…the whole summer I was there.”
That explained the amber eyes. I was so relieved they weren’t contact lenses. She had a little more than an edge, though, I could see, now. She had a complex- A powerful animosity for the Italian blood in her veins. It reminded me of whatshername and her Haitian hang-ups. I shook my head like the thought of her was water lodged in my ears. I looked around at the group. Every time I congregated with fairly intelligent black folks, the topic inevitably turned political or sociological. And, I was feeling too…discontented to pursue it now. I was liable to go off on a tirade and embarrass myself in front of Zola. So, Id decided to just shut up and listen.
“If you ware some famous model,” Mark said, “which you could be, no offense, or some big time actress, I bet they would have dragged you all over Italy showing you off. Ouch! Shit.”
Melanie must’ve pinched him or kicked him.
“None taken,” Zola sang.
Zola- what a class act. None taken was up there with afar and projecting.
“You probably went to Italy with a predisposition,” Curtis said. “Shit, if you’re looking for racism and prejudice, finding it is no problem.”
That was a stupid argument. But, Curtis hadn’t stuck his foot far enough in his mouth. So, I changed my mind about shutting up and decided to help him along a little.
“Seek and you shall find, huh?”
“That’s right. Black people walk around with these chips on their damn shoulders, daring any white person to even look at it, let alone knock it off. Then, when it happens, they scream bloody murder. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
I was surprised that Curtis could express himself so well. I didn’t agree with his theory but I had to applaud his delivery.
“That’s deep, bruh,” Kwame said. “So, I guess that’s what you would call the global perspective? Cuz you know that bullshit don’t apply stateside.”
“The hell it doesn’t! If niggas weren’t so blinded by ignorance, living in the past, they’d see it.”
Did Curtis just call Kwame a nigga on the derogatory tip? That was awfully white of him. Sounded like fighting words to me. That took a lot of guts, or a lot of liquor, one. Then, suddenly, I thought of Curtis’ beautiful wife, Sophia. Maybe she was the one schooling him. Would Curtis be talking this shit if she…his white wife was here?
“Learned a lot over there in Europe, huh?” I asked.
“I’m not saying that racism doesn’t exist unless you’re looking for it,” Curtis explained. “That’s would be stupid. All I’m saying is that negativity begets negativity. Black folk need to drop their predisposition to hate and distrust white people and see them for who they really are, not who their ancestors were. Judge them individually based on their present merits and demerits.”
“Word!” Cheryl concurred.
“And, your in-laws…how do they feel about it?”
Curtis face snarled until he looked like a giant pit bull muppet.
“What are you talking about?” Cheryl asked, looking at me, puzzled.
She didn’t know. Evidently, he hadn’t flashed his wallet-sized photos to Cheryl. Guess they were reserved for the fellas. I wondered if I should blow Curtis out the box. I felt a little sorry for him, though. Curtis was pleading with his eyes even now. But, his condescending miscegenating ass sure deserved exposure.
“Don’t tell me you’re married to a cracker and sitting here talking shit?” Kwame asked.
Well, so much for that quandary.
“She’s not a cracker. She’s Spanish-Italian.”
Cheryl raised an eyebrow and said, “Latino or Spanish Spanish?”
“Her mother’s from Barcelona and her father’s from Rome.”
“Oh, boy,” Zola sighed.
“Are Spanish people white?” Melanie asked. “I always thought Spanish people were…I don’t know…Spanish.”
Mark said, “That’s because the only thing you read are the advertisements on trains.”
Melanie sucked her teeth and said, “Fuck you, Nigga!”
Cheryl was staring at Curtis like she couldn’t believe her fucking ears.
Since the cat was out the box, I said, “I’d still like to know what the in-laws had to say about el negro joining the family.” You’re not off the hook, yet, Don Curtis Corleone.
Zola chuckled then caught herself. That was enough encouragement for me, though. Curtis was going to get a grilling. She was staring at me, her amber irises sparkling with delight. She was enjoying this a great deal. I tried to guess at her age, again. Twenty-seven, maybe. She spoke very well and carried herself like an independent woman. I allowed myself to swim in her eyes and wondered: if an octoroon is a person one-eighth black, what is the word for a person one-eighth white? Just black, I guessed.
“Well, Looky, looky, over here! What do you know…”
The voice sounded familiar. With some effort I snatched my attention from Zola and turned around. My head was woozy and the sudden twist shifted all the contents of my skull. The first thing I saw was the Medusa-like dreads, then the exaggerated smile. Was it Tameeka? I was seeing double, and the dreads appeared animated, like the tomb scene from “Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ It was her, I could see once I focused real hard.
“…If it isn’t Kevin Jackson.”
There was nothing malevolent about her. She looked genuinely glad to see me. She had to have some hard feelings, though. The way I’d stepped off from her…And to run into her so soon afterwards.
“Small world, huh?”
I introduced her to everybody. She remembered Cheryl and Melanie by face. Tameeka almost gawked when Kwame stood up to shake her hand. He was digging her, too. Otherwise, why the hell did he stand up? When I got to Zola, last but not least, Tameeka gave me a look and shot her a hard stare. Did she know her?
“Do I know you from somewhere?” Zola asked.
“I seriously doubt it,” Tameeka said.
Zola recoiled at that. She seemed to be trying to discern whether Tameeka was coming from a hostile place or not.
“So, what brings you to Nubia, Tameeka?” I asked. “Moving up in the world?”
“You trying to be funny?”
I was grinning but my question wasn’t a joke. Alcohol had a way of plastering a grin or a grimace on my face, depending on my mood. Besides, the waitresses at Nubia made a fortune.
“No, I’m not. You said your career was in Waiting, if I remember correctly. I just figured…”
“Quit while you’re ahead, Kevin.”
“I sense some hostility, Tameeka,” Melanie said. “Well, you came to the right place. Just grab a seat. Kevin was just giving Curtis shit about his Spanish-Italian wife. Not Latino Spanish, but a white Spanish woman, ya know.”
“They’re called Spaniards, lover,” Mark said.
“Thank you, baby,” Melanie said, blowing him a kiss.
“Really? This I got to hear,” Tameeka said as she grabbed a chair damn near from under someone sitting in it. The person was either going to notice his chair was gone or fall on his ass when he tried to sit down.
Kwame nudged me and whispered, “What’s up with that?” nodding towards Tameeka.
“A woman’s scorn…”
Kwame nodded in understanding, and said, “Recently?”
“Left a bad taste in her mouth?” Still in a hush tone. It wasn’t like Kwame to be so inquisitive. He was staring at Tameeka fondly.
“Nah, I didn’t hit her off.”
He looked relieved at that.
“No slim goodie like wusshername, huh,” he laughed, mocking me.
“You don’t know the halves, kid.”
“She ain’t bad looking at all.”
That was a huge modification of his usual complimentary line: she looks fine enough to suck my dick.
“Well, let’s hear it!” Tameeka said.
She was seated, now, right beside me with an eager look on her face.
“You came empty handed?” I asked, feeling like the life of the party. I hadn’t felt this way in years. “You best be grabbing a bottle of something to get with this workshop. Full tuition is a bottle of bubbly.”
Everybody laughed. I was just kidding with Tameeka but Mark and Melanie raised their empty glasses, and Cheryl started clearing her throat like it was dry. Tameeka surveyed the table littered with bottles and glasses. Then, she called a waitress passing by and ordered the Champagne. Kwame ordered two more bottles himself. I realized, then, that I had been mixing drinks. Vodka Martinis and Champagne. I seldom mixed drinks but I felt fine.
“Yo, Shaquan,” Tislam said as he came up from behind, towering over us.
“‘Sup Tiz,” I said.
“Hey, Tislam,” Cheryl said.
They’d known each other since High School and from Cheryl’s frequent excursions to Nubia. In fact, Tislam had tried to push up on her in those days, but who the hell didn’t? She had the most conspicuous gluteus maximus in the school. She was a celebrity.
“Peace God!” Kwame said.
“Peace to the God!” Tislam shouted so loud I could feel it in my chest. “Damn, God…where you been?”
“Hither and thither my brother.”
“Yo, Tiz. You remember Curtis, right?” I asked, thinking, if anything, he’d remember that day in the staircase when Curtis called me by my government name.
Tislam gave Curtis a good hard stare.
“Oh yeah…Mr. All-American,” Tislam said. “I remember that homecoming game when you broke Springfield’s quarterback’s rib cage. You were the shit! What it be like, baby?”
That’s right. Curtis was something of a celebrity at Granville T. I’d forgotten all about his football heroics. Probably tainted by the fact that Curtis and his jock cronies used to bully me. I’m sure that they’d never tried that shit with Tislam. Five Percent or not, Tislam just wasn’t to be fucked with.
Curtis, glowing in the memory and proud of Tislam’s recollection, no doubt, smiled modestly.
“I’m surviving. Still balling, over in Europe now. What about you, Bruh?”
“Student by-day, bouncer by-night. I’m taking this course in Web Page Design at the New School. I gotta get my shit together, you know what I’m saying?”
“Word?” I said.
“Can’t bounce for the rest of my life, God. Like you said, gotta put that trick knowledge to work to build a solid foundation for my seeds.”
It amazed me when people recalled what I’ve told them. I figured that whatever I had to say went in one ear and out the other. Kwame had said I underestimated myself. I looked at Kwame who was smiling and shaking his head knowingly like he knew what I was thinking.
A ruckus broke out on the dance floor and Tislam rushed away towards it.
Now that everyone was settled, I felt the need to pontificate. I had a captured audience, and I could always blame any faux-pas on being very drunk, which I was quickly becoming.
“So, Kevin, you were saying?” Melanie asked like I was trying to let the issue drop. Picture that.
“Awright, Melanie. Here’s the 411,” I began. “Spain is a European country. They are not Hispanic nor Latino. They are those savage bastards that invaded most of South and Central America, not to mention the so-called West Indies. Ever heard of the goddamn conquistadors? Cats like Cortez and that Ponce de Leon character that supposedly discovered Florida and Puerto Rico? No? I’m sure you heard of Columbus? Well, he was one of them, too. The Spaniards, they specialized in discovering inhabited countries. Most European powers practiced this belief called mercantilism. That basically meant it was their God given right to conquer and plunder any country stupid enough not to kill white people on sight, which was most of the Western Hemisphere, unfortunately. You see, this system said that that the health of a nation was defined by how much gold it had. So, all the European nations set out to acquire it, by any means necessary. The Spaniards were the most aggressive. That’s why so many goddamn countries speak Spanish. But, make no mistake about it: they’re white. Very fucking white! They’re white as the Germans and the French, and the fucking British, and the Russians, and them Goddamn Italians, too. Well, maybe not as white as the Brits. I mean after all the Moors did run up in that piece for a minute. But, for a Spaniard to be confused with a Puerto Rican or a Mexican or a Dominican…that’s a fucking insult to them.”
I looked into the rapt faces of my mini-congregation and felt that rush I fancied clergy must feel when their on a roll.
“The bastards raped and pillaged their way around the Americas,” I continued raving. “Spreading their Spanish spores all over the fucking continent, and impregnated every little place they stayed for more than a day. They fucked native Americans and then they stole us from Africa, brought us here and fucked us, too. Then the children of natives and Spanish fucked the children of African and Spanish. Then the children of Africans and natives fucked the children of Spanish and African. And, so on and so on until…until you end up with what we have now.
“Now you have Catholic descendants of Aztecs and little African-Spanish kids running around half-naked in the mountains of Peru. Get the picture? You got Desi Arnaz, a Cuban, a mix of Spanish and either African or some Cuban aborigine, and his Irish wife, Lucille Ball, on TV Babalooing.”
“So what,” Melanie said.
“So what? So what? I’ll tell you so what,” I snapped. “The drums, baby. The d-d-drum is how Africans communicated with one another before the advent of that cell phone you have in your pocketbook. There wouldn’t be a Ricky Ricardo without his drums. You see…he was talking to us. With his drum he was saying, ‘I am of African descent!'”
“Preach, brother, preach,” Mark said.
“Now, Curtis…” I continued. “Curtis comes along. The progeny of slaves and masters from God knows where and ventures to that country where those bastards came from, and he marries one of them. But, do you hear his drums? Nope. All you hear are words like Paisan and embraced. That’s what gets my goat. It ain’t bad enough that he strayed, he has to compound insult with injury and tell us we need to let go of our hate and be less ignorant and more like him.
“Now, Curtis, I saw a picture of your wife, and she is a beauty, and honestly…I’d be hard-pressed to resist her charms. But, I got to tell you, if I ever did slip, God forbid, you best be believing I’m gonna have my drums.”
“What drums?” Cheryl asked. “You don’t play no daggone drums. What the hell you talking about?”
“With a white woman on your arm,” Zola said, “how many people do you think are going to be trying to hear them drums? You’re gonna lose half of us.”
“That’s the problem, right there,” I said. “Half of us are lost any damn way. We got you going to Europe to find your roots. We got Curtis here, essentially a spy in the enemy’s country, and he don’t even fucking know it. We got Melanie here…she didn’t even know Spain was a fucking country. Cheryl thinks everything white is better, and I can’t fault you for that, honey. That’s the way we were raised to think. Shit, I let a white boy call me nigga today. Not directly, but he was quoting the lyrics to this Wu-Tang joint, and I didn’t say a word. Why, because I feel, in some ways, I am a nigga. Just as proud and ignorant and full of self-hatred as I wanna be.”
“Well, I agree with that last part,” Curtis said.
“Why you waxing so revolutionary, anyway?” Melanie asked. “Didn’t Cheryl tell me…Yeah! I do seem to remember Cheryl telling me you used to be doing them white chicks, too. Said she used to hook you up with them bitches from her job.”
“Oh dip,” Mark said.
“He sho’ did,” Cheryl said. “Used to be all up in they’re faces, too. That mug is a clown! Hard pressed to resist her charms…You need to be shot!”
“Key term is used to,” I said.
Tameeka laughed in my face. “He was just crying to me about how much he hates white people. You should have heard him: I hate black people cuz they’s ignorant and I hate my Mama and I hate my Landlord and I hate white people cuz they don’t know what its like to be in my black ski… and I want to thank the academy…”
Zola had her head down like she was trying to hide her laughter. Fuck!
“Damn! Is nothing sacred?” I asked. “You tell people stuff in confidence and what do they do? Mock you! Laugh in your face!”
“Then they want to clock you,” Melanie said, apropos of nothing. “Tired ass niggas, want to know your every step. When they’re out there slinging that thing with every piece of white…”
“Melanie!” Mark interrupted. “Fuck are you talking about?”
“Cuz they’re what? More submissive, right? All fucking passive and compliant and shit,” Cheryl said. She was so angry she’d started cussing again.
“And they won’t talk back, either.” Tameeka yelled. “They won’t tell you about your goddamn self…Ain’t that right? Well I ain’t got no problem with that!”
“Let me see this picture he’s talking about?” Cheryl demanded.
Curtis’ hesitantly whipped out his wallet and handed it to her. Cheryl examined the prized European beauty. She was impressed but she tried to hide it behind a frown.
When Zola raised her head she looked like she’d been crying.
“You awright?” I asked
“I’m not sure but I’ll be okay. I’m glad you invited me.” She was smiling, again, and it seemed the room lit up a little when she did. “I needed this.”
I wondered if I should shut up before I really offended someone and cause this peaceful gathering to erupt into chaos. But, it felt good talking to my people. Letting out a lot of the steam that had been building up for so long. It felt great to have black ears and minds absorbing my words and ideas and giving feedback. It even felt good being drunk. I wasn’t nauseous or anything. I had this easy inebriated feeling. Though objects were appearing in pairs, my mind felt lucid. The physical was being impaired while the mental and spiritual were being repaired.
“This conversation has deteriorated quickly,” Kwame said. “This white girl whining slash niggas ain’t shit stuff fucks up my high. It’s a given that black women are the finest on the planet. It’s not even debatable. I bet that even interracial marrying motherfuckers like Mr. All-American here know that. So can we stick to the point?”
“Word,” I said. I wanted to get back on Curtis, too.
“What point?” Curtis asked. “About my drums? You wanna know about my fucking drums?” He started to get up. Kwame did, too.
Just then, the alcohol arrived, toted by a bouncy half-naked waitress. I was happy for the distraction. Kwame told Tameeka to hold on to her money and that he had it. Tameeka told him no and Kwame reasserted himself. They went back and forth until she gave in. It was a cute interchange. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw Kwame so playful with a woman, or generous. Kwame paid with cash and then filled all the empty glasses except his and mine.
“You don’t need no more, Sha,” Kwame said on the down low, nodding toward Curtis. “It might get a little hectic up in here!”
“Nigga, you better fill my glass to my rim,” I said, in my drunkenness, “before I grab that bottle and use it on you.”
“You know, Sha…Kevin…I don’t even know what the hell to call you,” Curtis said. “You got Tislam and your boy Kwame calling you Shaquan, and everybody else calling you Kevin. Who the hell do you think you are, anyway?”
This was a question I had asked myself many times, never arriving at a satisfactory answer. All day at work, it’s This is Kevin… and each time I said it I felt a tinge of fraudulence. Like I was telling a little white lie. I actually had that feeling quite a bit- the feeling that I was lying though the words I was speaking were the truth, to my knowledge. It was as if I doubted and lied to myself. And, I wasn’t about to try and find some personal clarification in a group setting. This was my private dilemma.
“While you’re working that one out,” Curtis said, “let me give you something else to mull over. During my time in Europe, and in an interracial marriage, I’ve thought about race quite a bit. And, I’ve been doing my homework, too. I’ve learned a great deal…the hard way, you see. When you’re married to a white woman, racial issues are in your face constantly. More so in the U.S. than overseas, granted, but even over there there’s a great deal of open hostility.”
“I can vouch for that,” Zola said.
“But, what I’ve learned is that this whole concept of race is relatively new,” Curtis continued. “Do you know your Shakespeare?”
“Wherefore art thou…blah, blah, blah…” Kwame said.
“I saw Shakespeare in Love,” I said, being a smart-ass. I was an English major in college. Of course I knew Shakespeare and a bunch of other crackers that this education system in America shoved down my throat: Fucking Wordsworth and Coleridge and Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot…Everything I learned about black literature I pretty much had to do on my own.
“I saw Othello,” Mark said. “Larry Fishburne is the man!”
“Good choice,” Curtis said. “Now, Othello was written around sixteen hundred or so. It’s a story about a black man and a Muslim. What does that tell you?”
He seemed to be asking Kwame even though he addressed everyone. I was about to answer when Kwame said, “It tells me that you compare yourself to a fucking Shakespearean hero cause you married a white chick.”
“No,” Curtis said. “If you read the entire play you’ll find that there is no discussion of his race. He is merely a respected man in love with a woman. The fact that he is black and she is white doesn’t even play into the plot. Not even a subplot. Why? Because race wasn’t an issue then and that’s only 400 years ago. It didn’t become an issue until the Europeans that were involved in the slave trade, and proportionally it was just a handful of them, used race as a justification for some of their business ventures. But, it was…”
“Business ventures!” Mark shouted. “You call the destruction of a whole fucking continent and its people a business venture? Man, you need to go play football in Africa, cuz them Europeans got you fucked up in the head.”
“Did you study anything besides Shakespeare, Bruh,” Kwame asked, jumping in while the water was warm. “I did some studying my damn self and I figured out this: The simple truth is the white man is the devil. Ain’t no way around that shit. Ain’t no other race, and that’s right I said race, on this goddamn planet got the destructive track record of the white man. He ain’t never made peace nowhere- Nothing, but warmongers, thieves, liars and hellraisers. Trying to make the earth like the place or planet they come from.”
“Don’t y’all know that Africans were involved in the slave trade, too?” Curtis pleaded. “Intimately, I tell you. Some are, to this day, living off the riches made back then. They did the kidnapping, the gathering, so to speak. And, the selling…Maybe they didn’t know what was happening to black folks once they arrived over here, but they must have had a clue by the way they were treated in them slave dungeons. Held by the thousands in cages hardly suitable for hundreds. I’ve been there! I’ve been to Gambia and Mali. Those dungeons are still there. You think the Europeans could have done all the damage they did to Africa without African cooperation? They wouldn’t have stood a chance.
“And, how about over here in America,” Curtis continued. “Don’t you know there were black slave owners in the south? And that some of them even fought on the side of the confederacy to keep slavery alive. Didn’t know that did you? See, that’s the problem with most black folks…They only get half the story and live and die ignorantly. Just like Kevin…Shaquan, or whatever the fuck your name is, said. You’re right! Half of us are lost. Now, if you’re gonna hate everyone involved in the slave trade then you better start hating a lot of Africans, too. Hate yourself. That’s the answer…Hate everybody!”
Curtis looked like he was about to start crying. He must’ve been drunk, too, but he was making sense. We all sat there in silence mulling it over like Curtis had instructed, sipping Champagne like privileged black folks, heads bobbing to Eric B. for President.
Tameeka broke the silence and said, “You know, Kevin, I’ve been thinking about you since our date last weekend.” She was speaking so that the whole group could hear. But I felt, somehow, her target audience was Zola.
“It wasn’t a date.”
“We ate, we shared intimacies, it had romantic undertones…it was a date.”
“You need to get out more, then.”
“I was thinking the same thing about you. And, lo and behold, here you are. Out.”
“I always try tuh geddim to come out,” Cheryl slurred. “But he’s so cr-r-r-ranky. Then he gets this tone like he got sumpting better tuhdo.”
“What makes you think I don’t?” I asked, and regretted it even as the words were leaving my lips. The last thing I wanted to do was antagonize Cheryl. She was very drunk. Her speech was losing intelligibility and her facial muscles were beginning to loosen and droop.
“You act like yo’ ass is sooo high and mighty. But, you know what? You know what yo’ problem is?”
“That I don’t like being psychoanalyzed by drunks?” I said.
Zola burst into laughter. Cheryl’s eyes, half closed already, turned into evil little slits. She was about to erupt any second. I realized suddenly that this had not been a very good night for her and that I should have taken better care with her feelings. I’m very bad with that. I mean, she obviously had feelings for Curtis, and he had been leading her awry, and now, thanks to me, she was the object of ridicule from a strange woman with amber eyes.
“I thought it was me, ya know,” Tameeka said.
What now? “You thought what was you?”
“I thought that our date ended the way it did because of something I said or did.”
“It did. And, what date?”
“You can play stupid in front of your little friend but we know what we had. And, granted, it wasn’t a traditional date, but we learned more about one another in one night than most people do after several dates.”
“So what. We didn’t hit it off,” I yelled. “Shit happens. What difference does it make what was done or said that set it off?” I didn’t mean to sound angry but I could tell I had.
“That Stephanie really did a job on you, huh?”
I had the strangest feeling that she was near, suddenly. My eyes immediately trained on Zola. She favored Stephanie…not physically but there was something about her. Her style, her Je ne sais quoi. She was an NBA. Stephanie was an NBA, too, wasn’t she? The NBA that… I looked around. A laugh off to the right sounded like hers. A voice off to the left…hers, too. She was there, somewhere! I stood up to get a better vantage. There was two of everyone, of everything. The alcohol. The room was spinning like a carousel. My head was spinning the opposite direction- A carousel within a carousel. My head felt like it was going to explode. I grabbed it between my two palms and held it together. I felt myself falling back down on the couch. Then, the nausea came, wave after anti-peristaltic wave, defying gravity, pulling upwards, the taste of bile liquefying in my mouth. Oh no. I climbed clumsily from the couch again and pushed and stumbled my way to the baptistery. I tripped over a step at the doorway and fell to the floor of the bathroom. I crawled through God knows what to a urinal. There were two urinals before me. I tried to grab the sides of the one on the right and passed right through it, my head banging the side of the one on the left. Fuck! Someone lifted me up from the floor and guided me towards a stall. When I saw the toilet I lunged at it, hollered New York and blessed the bowl with my cookies. Wave after wave until I was purged.
“Yo, Sha. Are you okay, God?”
A mighty force supported me, kept me from dunking my head right into the toilet, putting my miserable little life to rest. I was limp in its grasp. It was calling me God.
“That’s right, God,” the voice responded.
I’m God? I’m not God! I’m nothing…I’m sick. God doesn’t get sick. God heals. God doesn’t vomit. God…nourishes. Oh God. I’ll never drink, again, God. I’ll never…I’ll be good, I…God. I’ll be good. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. Stephanie… Please…please forgive me. I…me. I’m on my knees. I’m begging. Mercy. Have mercy on me…
“Shaquan. It’s gonna be all right, man. It’s gonna be all right…Just let yourself go. I got you!”
I was on my knees, weeping, holding on to the toilet with my forehead leaning on the rim of the bowl. Everything had stopped spinning, but I felt lighter, afraid that gravity wasn’t going to keep me grounded. Like if I was to let go of the toilet bowl I’d fly away. I looked at the grip my hands had on the bowl, the whiteness of my knuckles. I couldn’t feel the power I was exerting to grip it. My hands were acting on instinct, involuntarily. I tried to will my hands to release the bowl but they wouldn’t obey my command. I looked up and there was Tislam, standing over me, looking as rueful as I felt. It was like Tislam had become a mirror. I made a face to test to see if it would be reflected. I made a grin, then a smile, and then a grimace…The mirror, Tislam, reflected only the grimace. So I looked away. On the wall of the stall were written the words: Retribution is at hand.
“Let me help you up, Sha.”
“I’m awright, Tiz,” I said, trying to convince myself, but this was the damnedest thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life. “I’m awright.”
“Yo God, you gotta learn how to hold your liquor.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“What do you mean?”
The last thing I remembered was saying, “I’m not Kevin, I’m not Shaquan, and I’m damn sure not God.”
Coming Soon- Chapter 8: Retribution is at hand
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